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CSOFT’s 15th Annual Summit officially takes off on June 6th. This is our second summit at our Boston office – we tested the waters in the Fall of 2018, and this time we’re really pushing the boat out. Twice, in fact. We’ll be aboard the Odyssey for a networking river cruise in the evening, and this weekend our very own dream team of seasoned CSOFT paddlers will be competing in the 40th Annual Boston Dragon Boat Festival.

It turns out dragon boat racing works wonders for cross-border team building. Colleagues from across our China and US offices flew in earlier this week to train together, and a shared desire to not capsize our boat proved to be a great incentive to work together as a team.

This seems quite fitting, considering that the event as a whole is all about connecting cultures. The organizers of the first event in 1979 were looking for a way to build bridges between different Chinese cultural organizations, as well as between them and the wider community. After a bit of research, they decided that a day of cultural activities centered around a dragon boat race was the way forward.

The fact that the event is now in its fortieth year suggests that they were onto something. So why has it been so successful? Surely one reason must be that nothing brings Americans together quite like a competitive sport. But perhaps the bigger reason is the enduring popularity in Chinese culture of Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC), the ancient Chinese poet whose tragic fate the festival is now centered around.

Legend has it that Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River, overcome with grief upon hearing about the fall of his home state of Chu to the rival state of Qin (later the Qin dynasty). Once a high-ranking official in the Chu capital, Qu Yuan was living in exile at the time of his death. He had fallen out of favor with the king, slandered by other officials for his unpopular policy of resisting an alliance with Qin. Feeling ostracized and betrayed from the events surrounding his exile, the news that Chu had fallen confirmed his worst fears about Qin’s expansionist ambitions and plunged him further into despair, in the end drowning himself.

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Some stories hold that the local community set out onto the Miluo River in dragon boats to rescue Qu Yuan, or at least recover his body. Others hold that the boats’ purpose was to drive away the fish so they would not feed on his body. The traditional consumption of zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, is said to have its origins in throwing rice into the water, also to divert the attention of hungry fish.

Qu Yuan’s legacy extends far beyond his death, however. His deeply personal and expressive compositions such as Li Sao (“On Encountering Sorrow”) initiated a tradition of romanticism in Chinese poetry that inspired those such as Li Bai (701–762), an iconic Tang poet and probably the best known in all of Chinese history.

His life story is also something of a classic motif in Chinese history. Other misunderstood officials throughout imperial China drew solace from the idea, present in Qu Yuan and others’ stories, that telling the monarch what they need to hear as opposed to what pleases them is the righteous thing to do – even if it invites betrayal.

A connected idea, and an especially relatable one for many officials throughout Chinese imperial history, is the tension between one’s inner and outer life. A successful career in imperial China meant a relentless string of examinations followed by a bureaucratic life in the civil service, and many pursued it while secretly longing for a life of solitude, painting, and poetry. The roots of this idea can certainly be seen in Qu Yuan’s life, who enjoyed a successful official career prior to his exile which, while painful, was also creatively productive and turned him into a cultural icon.

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Finally, Qu Yuan’s imaginative and often surreal works in the Chu Ci (“Verses of Chu”) give a glimpse into the place of shamanistic ritual, music, and art in the Chu culture of ancient times. The heavy-handed Qin rulers were uneasy about the naturalistic culture of the Chu peoples, but by the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) its representation in the Chu Ci had become a source of fascination for the rulers. This helped cement its place in the Chinese cultural and literary tradition thereafter, and is still an important source of information on Chu culture for scholars today.

Much has been said recently about the role of literacy in cultivating empathy; in that sense, a boat race aimed at bridging different cultures seems to be a fitting tribute to such a prolific poet as Qu Yuan.

Anyway, it will give us something to think about as we paddle furiously down the Charles River this weekend. Wish us luck!

Written by Jonathan Wildman, Account Manager, Global Communications

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