In this coming week, many in the Chinese community will be celebrating the annual Dumpling Festival or also known as the Dragon Boat Festival. No, this is not a ‘How To Make A Dumpling’ type of post. Sorry! I won’t even know where to start! However, I’d like to introduce you to the reason for the Dumpling Festival.
Before I begin my story, I should probably explain that I have an insane love for ancient history, particularly ancient China. I find them fascinating, especially the fact that their work from thousands of years ago still survive to this day. So every once in a while, expect me to share some stories on my favourite historical characters. For that reason, I’m creating a brand new category in my blog. We shall call it ‘Useless But Fun Information’.
So back to the reason for the Dumpling Festival. Meet Mi Yuan, a minister from the state of Chu during the Warring States Period. He is also often referred to as Qu Yuan or Chu Yuan, meaning Yuan from the state of Chu. Today, the state of Chu is known as Hubei in Central China (yes, Wuhan is the present-day capital of Hubei).
To make it easier for you to place the timeframe of the Warring States, I will use the First Emperor of China (Qin ShiHuang) as reference. Mi Yuan served as Left Minister of Chu during the time when the First Emperor’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was King of Qin. That means he lived and served before the First Emperor unified China, more than 2000 years ago.
Most of what is known about Mi Yuan today comes from the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian during the Han Dynasty. In the book, Mi Yuan was portrayed as an extremely idealistic and patriotic minister, surrounded by greedy and unprincipled colleagues and serving a weak king. He was often slandered by the other ministers and was twice exiled from court.
During his time in exile, Mi Yuan was said to have roamed the countryside and collected folklores, but his most enduring work would be the anthology Chu Ci (Songs of Chu) in which the poem Li Sao (Encountering Sorrow) is probably one of the most famous.
Here’s a translated excerpt from Li Sao: “I marvel at the folly of the king; So heedless of his people’s suffering; They envied me my mothlike eyebrows fine; And so my name his damsels malign; Truly to craft alone their praise they paid; The square in measuring they disobeyed; The use of common rules they held debased; With confidence their crooked lines they traced.”
While Mi Yuan struggled to stand tall and cling to his principles in the rapidly weakening state of Chu, he faced a formidable opponent in the form of Zhang Yi, the premiere of the Qin state during the Warring States Period. Where Mi Yuan was blunt of speech, Zhang Yi was famed for his silver tongue, able to weave together alliances from a string of words. Zhang Yi’s work as a strategist set into motion events that would eventually weaken the other states.
Unfortunately for the state of Chu, Mi Yuan’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Exiled and in despair, Mi Yuan walked into the river with a rock in his arms. Here’s the thing about Mi Yuan, though. While the court hated him, the general populace loved him. He was seen as an incorruptible government official, which he probably was.
Legend has it that the villagers raced their boats into the river but were too late to save him. That was how the Dragon Boat Festival began. To stop the fishes from feasting on his body, the villagers threw their rice dumplings into the river. That was how the Dumpling Festival came to mark the passing of a patriotic man.
Little else is known about the personality of Mi Yuan. In the drama series The Qin Empire, poetic/creative license had him portrayed by Yang ZhiGang as principled but lacking in people skills. In the drama series, he often scoffed at the opinions of his fellow ministers, sometimes pushing his views to the point of shouting at the Chu King. Fists balled and jaws clenched, he barged his way through delicate diplomatic situations like a bull in a china shop.
If I were to put it into Bazi terms, he was like a thriving Jia Wood Structure, rigid and unbending to the extreme.
In the series, the Chu King once said to Mi Yuan after a prolonged bout of shouting, “Mi Yuan, you have no idea how lucky you are to serve a patient master. Any one of my fellow Kings would have relieved you of your head by now.”
I guess the King finally lost his patience.
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Albert Einstein
If there was a lesson to be learned from Mi Yuan’s story, I guess it would be the importance of learning to be mindful of how our own behaviour play a part in eliciting response from others. That it is okay to cling on to our principles, but we all need some flexibility in delivery.
But here’s a thought to end my self-gratifying post, more than 2000 years later, only hard-core fans of ancient Chinese history would know about Zhang Yi. But everyone is still ‘celebrating’ Mi Yuan. So how’s that for legacy?