Know Your China Trail Icons: Qu Yuan

Know Your China Trail Icons: Qu Yuan

Discover the story of this ancient Chinese icon


For us at Trails China, there are some things we consider fundamental; the provision of great trails across China (no surprises there), the provision of the right information to get you there, and getting across the nuances and character of each trail. This last one is particularly important because we believe every trail as its own story to tell, be it through its connection to history, its intersection with culture or sheerly through its unique physical features. Telling the stories of each China trail we share not only helps bring it alive for you and adds an extra dimension when you’re there, it also shows the trails the respect they deserve.

Across the world, there will be trails that follow in the footsteps of a cherished ancient figure. Local hikers may tread the paths in a state of reverence, picturing their hero sharing the ground they now walk. While reverence isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying trails of this nature, having a deeper understanding of what makes the trail special is only likely to make your own adventure that bit more special.

Qu Yuan was a nobleman, politician and poet during China’s Warring States period (475-221 BCE.) Today he is remembered as one of China’s first and greatest patriotic poets, who both innovated the form and, as legend has it, died for his loyalty. The reason Qu Yuan’s story lives on through trails too is that, with Qu Yuan’s Chu state under pressure from the Qins, Qu Yuan was exiled by the Chu king. The king was falling victim to influences opposed to Qu Yuan’s vision of defence, which proposed greater cooperation with other kingdoms to resist the rising Qin state. In exile, Qu Yuan became something of a wanderer (does that sound familiar, exile aside?). He became a collector; of folk customs, of local myths and legends; all of which heavily influenced and informed his celebrated writings. In the Xuefeng Mountains, you will pass places that inspired the great poet during his exile. One of Qu Yuan’s most famous pieces, Mountain Ghost, was inspired by his witnessing of a folk ceremony in the very hills you’ll wander through; a rock figure representing the Mountain Ghost can even be seen.

Qu Yuan was also profoundly affected both by his exile and by the state of his homeland. With his advice ignored and his counsel refused, a sense of despondency within him grew and again manifested itself in his work. Another of his famous works, Lament for Ying, was written upon hearing about the collapse of Chu’s capital, Ying, into the hands of the Qin state. The legend of his death goes that, in despair of the sad state of the land he dearly loved, and in protest against the lies and corruption that saw him exiled, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo river.

It was Qu Yuan and his death that gave rise to what is today one of China’s biggest popular festivals- the Dragon Boat Festival. It is said that when villagers saw Qu Yuan enter the water, they went after him on boats to try to save him, and when they couldn’t, they threw food into the water to distract the fish away from his body. Now the Dragon Boat Festival takes place every year on the anniversary of Qu Yuan’s death, and small parcels of food known as Zongzi are still thrown into the water.

As one of the original Romantic Chinese poets, who innovated form and structure, and as a patriot and martyr for loyalty and honesty, Qu Yuan is a titan of Chinese culture.