Qu Yuan (340 BC-278 BC) is one of the most famous figures in all of Chinese history.
A high-ranking minister of the state of Chu during China's Warring States Period, he advocated a policy of strong alliance with the other Chinese states to defend against the growing power of the state of Qin. However, Qu Yuan's rivals told slanderous lies about Qu Yuan to the king of Chu, and succeeded in having him dismissed from the government.
Qu Yuan then returned to his hometown and became a poet, composing a series of poems collected in the Chu Ci ("Songs of Chu"), which today is the second-oldest still extant collection of Chinese poems, after the Shi Jing. Qu Yuan's poems were extremely influential on later poets, not only due to their great beauty and elegance, but also in their groundbreaking shift away from the restrictive four character verses of the Shi Jing to produce a freer and more expressive style.
In 278 BC, the state of Qin had grown so powerful that they were finally able to conquer the state of Chu and capture the Chu capital of Ying. When Qu Yuan heard of the fall of Ying, he became despondent, and composed a famous poem called the "Ai Ying", or "Lament for Ying." He then waded into the Miluo River holding a heavy rock to make sure he would drown.
When the nearby fisherfolk, who greatly loved Qu Yuan, realized what was happening, they raced out into the river in their boats to try to save Qu Yuan, but by the time they reached him it was too late and he was already dead. They then commenced beating drums and throwing dumplings into the river to keep the hungry fish away from his body until it could be fished out of the river for a proper burial.
This legendary incident is said to be the origin of the famous Dragon Boat Festival, Chinese culture's third most important holiday after Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival. During this festival, participants race "dragon boats" said to represent the fishermen racing out to Qu Yuan's body, paddling in time to the beat of drums, said to represent the drums beaten to scare away the fish. Meanwhile, observers on the shore eat traditional zongzi dumplings, said to be the dumplings tossed into the river to give the hungry fish something else to eat besides Qu Yuan's body.