The former state of Chu, which encompassed northern Hunan, was under siege in 278 BC from the first stirrings of the ambitious Qin armies, who later brought all of China under their control. At the time, the lakeside town of Yueyang was the haunt of the exiled poet-governor Qu Yuan, a victim of palace politics but nonetheless a great patriot of Chu. Hearing of the imminent invasion, Qu picked up a heavy stone and drowned himself in the nearby Miluo River rather than see his beloved state conquered. Distraught locals raced to save him in their boats, but were too late. They returned later to scatter zongzi (packets of meat and sticky rice wrapped up in reeds and lotus leaves) into the river as an offering to Qu Yuan’s spirit.
The Dragon Boat Festival, held throughout China on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (June or July), commemorates the rowers’ hopeless rush – though many historians trace the tradition of food offerings and annual boat races to long before Qu’s time. At any rate, it’s a festive rather than mournful occasion, with the consumption of huge quantities of steamed zongzi and keen competition between local dragon-boat teams, who can be seen practising in their narrow, powerful crafts months before the event to the steady boom of a pacing drum. It’s a lively spectator sport, with crowds cheering the rowers along, but you need to be up early to get the most from the ceremonies (for example, the dedication of the dragon-headed prows) as the race itself lasts only a few minutes.