Given many different names, the Duanwu, or Dragon Boat Festival, is China’s iconic festival celebrating its culture in its purest and strongest form. The Festival sees many activities including tasting Zongzi (a type of sticky rice dumplings) and Xionghuang Jiu (wine made from Realgar, an arsenic sulphide), as well as Duanwu racing (racing between Dragon Boats). However, these are just the highlights, it’s also tradition to hang mugwort and calamus leaves, take long walks and wear perfumed medicine bags to protect one against poisons, snakes and evil spirits. Making an egg stand upright at noon is also thought to bring luck during the coming year and many will partake in this practice or write spell tags and charms in an attempt to both bring good luck and dissuade bad luck.
First marked as a public holiday just recently, the festival had continued for almost sixty years following the first forming of the People’s Republic of China but had not been recognized until 2008. Additionally, many other countries with Chinese communities nearby celebrate the festival such as Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam and even Japan. But how did this magical festival come about you ask? There are many stories, including several about pre-existing holidays as well as the three most prominent tales of Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu and Cao E. All tales, strangely, relate to the drowning of individuals in a river.
Qu Yuan was a minister and poet of the Ancient Chinese State of Chu in the 4th to 3rd Centuries BC whom was accused of treason by the king after he decided to ally with the powerful Qin state, Qu Yuan opposed the alliance and was banished from the state. In his exiled state he wrote a large number of poems which brought the people comfort and hope, sadly when the state of Qin captured the capital, Ying, Qu Yuan drowned himself, but the locals whom strongly admired him raced out into the river to try to save him, eventually retrieving his body for an honourable funeral. Zongzi are believed to have started as bait used by the locals to draw the fish away from eating Qu Yuan’s body. Wu Zixu was an advisor to the king in the 5th Century BC, the king foolishly ignored his advice and this caused the overrunning of the kingdom by the state of Fuchai. The new king then forced Wu Zixu to commit suicide and upon his death, had his body thrown into the river.
Cao E was the daughter of the shaman Cao Xu in the 2nd Century BC whom presided over the ceremonies in Shangyu. One day, Cao Xu fell into the river and was lost, in an act of love, Cao E searched for three days to find him in the river and too was lost. After five days, her body, as well as her fathers, were found, believed to have died from drowning and a temple was built almost a decade later, commemorating their memories. It’s also believed that the festival may have been started as a ritual to avoid disease, for worshipping dragons (mainly through the offerings made to deities and spirits) and even as a celebration of the coming harvest associated with the end of spring.
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