Does Malaysia have a Qu Yuan?

LAST Tuesday, many Malaysian Chinese celebrated Duanwu Jie or Double Fifth Festival – so named because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar – by eating steamed glutinous rice dumplings. Usually tetrahedral in shape in this country, these dumplings or zongzi contain either savoury or sweet fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and tied with string.

Because dragon boat races are often held around this date, it is also popularly known as the Dragon Boat Festival.

Frequently forgotten amid the feasting is the cautionary tale of Qu Yuan, a poet and scholar who lived in the state of Chu during the Warring States period (476BC – 221BC). According to popular belief, dumplings are eaten to commemorate Qu Yuan's death.

Qu Yuan (340BC – 278BC) was a top court official who advised his monarch, King Huai of Chu, to seek to work with the state of Qi to resist the militant expansion of the state of Qin.

Of the seven warring states, Chu was agriculturally-rich, populous and one of the largest kingdoms. An alliance with Qi would fortify Chu's ability to resist an increasingly expansionist Qin.

Persuaded by jealous and corrupt officials, King Huai ignored Qu Yuan's advice and exiled this loyal statesman.

Thereafter, King Huai was enticed to go to Qin where he was imprisoned. Although he escaped, he was recaptured and died in captivity in the enemy state. His successor was his equally incompetent son, Qing Xiang, who also dismissed Qu Yuan's warnings regarding Qin's hegemonic ambitions.

On learning the Chu capital had been captured by Qin general Bai Qi in 278BC, a distraught Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River, in present-day northern Hunan province. To prevent Qu Yuan's body from being eaten by fish, the common folk threw dumplings into the Miluo River.

For political leaders and corporate chieftains in the 21st century, Qu Yuan's career offers three useful pointers.

First, a good leader is one who possesses the ability – admittedly rare – to distinguish between self-seeking sycophants from advisers who are capable, far-sighted and knowledgeable. While the ultimate desideratum is a competent king surrounded by capable advisers, the second-best scenario is an average, or even mediocre, leader guided by brilliant subordinates.

As the Chu kings – father and son – amply demonstrated, the worst scenario for a country, political party or a company is a lacklustre leader totally neglectful despite clever and astute aides. In such a situation, the inadequacies of the former will prevent the utilisation, let alone maximisation, of the latter's talents.

Second, an adviser must have one outstanding attribute – the ability to assess objectively and with clear-eyed realism the strengths and weaknesses of the political party or corporate entity the leader commands.

A political or corporate top honcho must know at a particular juncture whether the organisation's long-term survival calls for surrendering partial autonomy through an alliance to stave off an impending shackled servitude.

Political leaders who have achieved considerable success in past elections through an electoral understanding with other political entities who shared a similar over-arching objective, even if their ideologies differ, should realise the supposed merits of singleton status may be an illusion rather than reality.

Similarly, corporate entities who have been well-supported by Putrajaya in the past, should have an unblemished view of their strengths and equally crucial, their weaknesses, if they chose the go-it-alone path.

It should be remembered the Chu kings – both father and son – paid the ultimate price for their vainglorious ineptitude. Yingdu, the kingdom's capital, was destroyed while the sepulchres of generations of Chu kings were razed to the ground, Guo Moruo writes.

Historically, Chu's defeat facilitated the end of the Warring States' era and helped the Qin ruler to unify China and establish a new, but very short-lived, dynasty.

Third, Qu Yuan is venerated today because he was an exceptionally loyal official. Despite his dismissal from court by two singularly unappreciative Chu kings, Qu Yuan never worked for another sovereign.

Qu Yuan's deep-seated loyalty may be compared with another equally iconic figure of unshakeable loyalty – Guan Yu who lived during the Three Kingdoms era. Unlike Qu Yuan, however, Guan Yu was highly regarded by Liu Bei, the king of Shu, and by Zhuge Liang, the latter's trusted and top-ranked adviser.

Given the Chu kings' lack of appreciation of Qu Yuan's abilities, should the latter have sought the services of another, more enlightened, sovereign, even though the statesman was an impoverished member of the ruling Chu family?

In today's rapidly-changing political and corporate scenario, does Malaysia have a modern-day Qu Yuan? And if such a figure exists, will this individual be given the opportunity to become a much valued figure or a disastrously unutilised Qu Yuan?

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at