The Poet and the Dragon
A Chinese Legend
When the poet Chu Yuan is banished to the far north, he lives and writes upon the banks of the River Mi Lo. Unlike the villagers who fear the river's dragons, Chu Yuan, in listening to his heart, finds true friendship and understanding among the dragons.
The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated in China on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, an occasion for driving off evil spirits and for finding peace in one's life. The highlight of the festival are the dragon boat races, commemorating the tale of Chu Yuan.
Long ago there lived a man name named Qu Yuan, son of an imperial family, a philosopher, poet and gentle man. For many years Qu Yuan served as an adviser to the ruler of the land, the wise King Chu.
Then one day Qu Yuan heard that the King of Qin planned to overthrow King Chu. He quickly ran to tell his king, but when King Chu heard this news, he laughed. "This is nonsense. King Qin is my friend."
"He is a false friend," Qu Yuan insisted.
Now the king roared. "You must never speak against my friends. For this I will punish you," and so he did. He banished Qu Yuan from the royal house and sent him to live in the faraway north, on the shores of the River Mi-Lo.
As Qu Yuan traveled there, he nursed a broken heart. He had never wished for anything but an opportunity to serve his king. In the far north he could do nothing but write poetry and wander the river's edge.
And so, when he arrived at the river, this is what he did. He wandered along the river bank. He wept. And he wrote poetry about his sadness, about the beauty of the world around him and the loneliness within his heart.
The people loved Qu Yuan, and though they were sad for him, they were also afraid.The River Mi-Lo was famous for its wild dragons; for they were, terrifying creatures—fire-breathing, monstrous, dangerous. If Qu Yuan was not careful, they would destroy him. But Qu Yuan did not listen.
One day as Qu Yuan sat by the river, he suddenly felt a presence. He looked up at the rainbow in the clouds. He wriggled his bare toes resting in white clover and shivered with joy. He inhaled the scent of the wild orchids, and suddenly he knew someone was near. He heard the rustling of reeds. He wondered if a River Dragon might be near, and for one moment he felt afraid.
Then the reeds parted, and a creature moved toward him, and Qu Yuan's heart lifted. For the first time he felt at peace, for the creature he saw looked to him not like the fierce dragon others said haunted the river. To Qu Yuan this enormous figure was not frightening at all; he was certain this must be the River Goddess.
From that day on, the River Goddess appeared every day. She swam to the riverbank and sat by Qu Yuan's side to listen to his poetry. She could never hear enough of the beautiful language, the way the poet wove words more exquisite than even the orchid, more mysterious than the lotus leaves, more magical than the rippling water. When the dragon heard Qu Yuan's poetry, her heart swelled with joy.
Now Qu Yuan no longer felt lonely.
In the village the people whispered about their poet. They feared for his life, but Qu Yuan simply basked in the friendship of the one he called River Goddess.
As the year passed, the north winds began to rage, and furious waves slapped the shore. The people ran for their homes to hide, and as they ran they called out to the poet. "Please come to our houses. The river is no place for a man alone."
They cried, "The dragons will destroy you."
But the only thing that made Qu Yuan happy in those days was the sight of his river goddess. He wrote poems and sang to her. Day after day they sat together, inhaling the sights, scents and sounds of this faraway world.
"We understand each other," Qu Yuan wrote. "We understand each other because we are both misunderstood."
The dragon moved closer for she knew this man was as lonely as any dragon, and his words touched her heart.
Each day at twilight, when the dragon returned to her underwater home, Qu Yuan grew sad again. "If only my goddess would stay with me," he sighed.
Sometimes he wept himself to sleep and thought again of King Chu and of his desire to serve his king and his country.
Then one night the people learned the news, and they ran to tell Qu Yuan. King Qin had overthrown their king. The man King Chu had trusted, the man King Chu believed to be his friend had betrayed him.
Qu Yuan had been right all along. And now King Chu was gone.
Qu Yuan wept at this news, and the next day when the River Goddess swam to his side, he said to her, "I have nothing more to live for. The king I loved and wished to serve is gone forever. If only he had listened to me…
The dragon's eyes filled with tears as she listened to the poet speak of his sorrow, and she whispered, "If only you could come to live with me under the river."
When Qu Yuan heard this, his eyes lit up. "I know. I'll follow you. I'll live under the water," and with that he leapt into the river. "You are the only creature in the world who understands me."
But Qu Yuan could not swim. He began to drown, and when the dragon saw this, she reached for him and clutched him to her side. In that moment a fisherman nearby heard the splash and cry.
When the fisherman looked up he saw Qu Yuan in the dragon's grasp. "The dragon is taking our poet! Come! Help save Qu Yuan!"
A moment later dozens of villagers were racing to the river's edge. They climbed into their boats and paddled as fast as they could toward Qu Yuan who clung with all his strength to his goddess. When Qu Yuan saw the people slapping their paddles upon the surface of the water, trying to frighten the dragon, and when he saw them raise their spears to kill his beloved, he pushed with all his strength, taking the dragon with him under the water.
The people were horrified and moved more quickly forward, but then, from beneath the surface, their poet rose out of the river, transformed, more like a water creature now than man.
"The dragons have drowned our poet," the people wept, but Qu Yuan raised his arm and called to them. "No, no, do not believe all that you see. I am saved!"
They stopped to listen.
"Listen to your hearts. Only your heart will tell you the truth." And then Qu Yuan dived beneath the water and disappeared forever.
That night the people gathered in their village to talk of what they had seen and heard. They understood the dragon had not killed their poet. She had rescued him. The dragons were not their enemies. Now they must reconsider what they saw and trust their hearts.
And in memory of the poet they had so loved, they paddled to the river and tossed rice upon the water to feed his soul and the souls of the dragons. They carved boats in the shape of those mystical dragons—dragon boats. And every year since that, the people paddle to the river in their dragon boats and toss their rice in honor of the wisdom of the heart.