The Dragon Boat Festival is also called Duanwu Festival, and is famous for both the Dragon Boat Races and an exiled poet Qu Yuan who committed suicide in the Pre-Qin Period. There is a joke circulating the Web in China: “Karl Marx left us tons of inscrutable texts to rack our brains, and Qu Yuan gave us three days off.”
The Duanwu Festival Dates:
1. There exist a lot of legends about the Dragon Boat Festival, but actually, the customs of the festival stem from a ceremony of Heaven worship, which pre-dates the commemoration of the ancient poet Qu Yuan.
2. The ancient poet, Qu Yuan, and his patriotism are deeply rooted in people’s minds; therefore, his story is related to this festival.
3. In northern China, people like to climb a mountain during the Dragon Boat Festival, which has a longer history than just the Dragon Boat Race.
4. Zongzi is a typical food enjoyed during the Dragon Boat Festival. Every family soaks bamboo leaves and glutinous rice and wraps them to make zongzi. This custom has even spread to North Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia from China.
5. The idea of rowing the dragon boat is derived from the ancient sacrificial activities in the south of China to pray for a kind climate and the best weather.
6. The earliest record of “Dragon Boat” in the Chinese language can be found in an ancient book in the Pre-Qin Period.
7. The Dragon Boat Festival is also celebrated across East Asia. But in Korea it is known as Dano. It caused an uproar in China when South Korea successfully sought UNESCO recognition for Dano celebrations in the coastal town of Gangneung in 2005. Chinese patriots think that the Koreans appropriated the Chinese holiday.
8. In September, 2009, UNESCO added the Dragon Boat Festival to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, the first Chinese festival to receive the honor.
The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and the accurate time is at noon on the day. It coincides with the annual flood period and midsummer when insects and bacteria breed fast and people easily catch infections. In times gone by, with poor hygiene and limited technology, people could not understand what caused disease. While the climate served up dreadful weather in the fifth lunar month, it was also an important season for the growth of the crops. Thus, the fifth lunar month was considered an unfortunate month. The natural phenomena were regarded as disturbing signs, and ancestors performed a sacrifice to heaven. They thought that the high mountains and the bank of a long river were excellent places for offering sacrifices. Northern tribes and ethnic groups in mountainous areas of China prayed on the top of mountains, and people in southern areas prayed on the river bank, as they believed that they were descendants of the Chinese dragon (a legendary creature depicted as having a snake-like body with two talons, fish scales, a tail, and two antlers on its head). They rowed the dragon boats in the hope that the real Chinese dragon would appear and protect them.
After the ancient poet Qu Yuan’s great deed touched people deeply, they combined his tale with their customs to commemorate his death.
Qu Yuan, a great patriotic and romantic poet, created Chu Ci, which was a new genre of poetry based on the folk songs in the State of Chu in the late Warring States Period (475-211AD). He was of noble birth and engaged in both domestic and foreign affairs. At that time, the State of Qin in the west was bent on annexing the other states, and Qu Yuan asserted that the Chu State should firmly resist Qin, instead allying with the State of Qi to the east. So he was marginalized by other aristocrats and banished from Chu. Eventually, after Qin conquered the State of Chu, Qu Yuan mourned and committed suicide by drowning himself in Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Legend has it that the Chu people were so affected by his loyalty, that they wanted to save his life and rowed boats on the river to save him, but it didn’t work. Then they started to throw glutinous rice dumplings into the river for feeding the fish, in case his body was eaten. It said that Zongzi were developed from the rice dumplings. Since then, this popular story of Qu Yuan is deemed to be the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival.
Due to a lack of resources, the ancient Chinese used Realgar Wine to disinfect their homes, wore scented sachets containing various herbs, showered with water of wormwood, and a lot of other old customs which are still observed today.
The Dragon Boat Racing during the Duanwu Festival is the most festive event. Players paddle furiously and chase each other. Audiences bang drums on the bank. What a bustling and lively scene!
In northern China, people like eating sweet zongzi with red bean and dried jujube paste. However, the folks in southern China prefer their zongzi savory and filled with fatty pork and green bean paste.
Scented Sachets are the characteristic ornaments on the Festival, and are filled with aromatic herbs and decorated with exquisite embroidery in various designs. It is believed that hanging scented sachets with five-color silk is able to scare evil away.
Wormwood is an herb with a bitter taste and a particular smell, and hanging it on the door is useful for repelling flies, mosquitoes, and insects.
Realgar is an arsenic poison that has an increased effect after mixing with alcohol. Realgar wine is a traditional Chinese drink containing fermented cereals and powered realgar that was used in ancient times.
It is also used as a disinfectant to spray into the corners of the room. Elders dip a finger into realgar wine and write a character on the children’s foreheads and spread it on their ears, noses, hands, and feet. It is believed that it will protect children from harm and diseases. There is an old saying that states, “Drinking realgar wine drives evils and diseases away.” Unfortunately, it is poisonous to drink, as has been proved by modern medicine.
In the north of China, as the fifth lunar month is thought to be a period of misfortune, so that the ancient Chinese people prayed for peace for the next year on top of a mountain. On the way, they collected medicinal herbs such as wormwood and peach branches.
In the southern region of the Yangtze River, balancing eggs is an interesting game for children. It is easier to keep eggs standing up on the day at high noon. People in folk stories think that you will be lucky if you can balance your eggs before noon.
This custom prevails in the north of China, with children tying five-color silk to their hands and feet until the first rainfall during the summer season. People consider that it can protect children from plague and misery.