THE STORIES OF DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL
The Dragon Boat Festival is also known as Duan Wu Festival, on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month of Chinese calendar, 22nd of June this year. It is a day celebrated to commemorate the life and death of one of China’s most famous citizens. QU YUAN who lived in the pre-imperial Warring States period (475-221 BC).
Qu Yuan is popularly regarded as a minister in one of the Warring State governments, the southern state of Chu (present day Hunan and Hubei provinces), a champion of political loyalty and integrity, and eager to maintain the Chu state’s autonomy and hegemony. Formerly, it was believed that the Chu monarch fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan as ‘a sting in flesh’ and therefore he banished Qu, his most loyal counsellor.
In the year 278 BC, upon hearing of the upcoming devastation of his state from invasion by a neighbouring State (Qin in particular), Qu Yuan is said to have waded into the Miluo river holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era. The Qin kingdom eventually conquered all of the other states including Chu and unified them into the first Chinese empire. The word China derives from this first dynasty of empire, Qin, under imperialist unifier Qin Shi Huang.
The common people, upon hearing of Qu Yuan’s suicide, rushed out on the water in fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save Qu Yuan. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. Later on, they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger. Another belief is that the people scattered rice to feed the fish, in order to prevent them from devouring Qu Yuan’s body.
However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that the rice meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap the rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since known as ZONG ZI or sticky rice wrapped in leaves. In commemoration of Qu Yuan, people hold dragon boat races annually on the day of his death.
CELEBRATING DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL IN CHINA
WHAT DO PEOPLE DO?
The real highlight of the festival is the fierce-looking dragon boat racing in a lively, vibrant spectacle. Participants train in earnest for the competition. Sitting two abreast, with a steersman at the back and a drummer at the front, the paddlers race the elaborately decorated dragon boats to the beat of the heavy drums.
The dragon boats are traditionally made of teak wood to various designs and sizes, which usually have brightly decorated designs with the front end shaped like open-mouthed dragons, and the back end with a scaly tail. A sacred ceremony is performed before any competition in order to ‘bring the boat to life’ by painting the eyes.
WHY DO PEOPLE DO THESE?
The cool, humid rainy season before Duanwu clashes with the muggy heat of early summer after Duanwu, making it a time when people would easily contract a disease. Ancient people considered this susceptibility to disease as the effect of evil spirits, which coincided with their belief about bad/evil days. Duanwu thus became a day for collective customs to purge poison and expel plagues annually on the day of his death.
DRINKING REALGAR WINE
People drink realgar wine which is considered effective in preventing disease and promoting health.
HANGING CALAMUS AND WORMWOOD
People hang calamus and wormwood on the front door and windows, because they are in the shape of a sword and considered symbols of victory over illness and poison, people believe they possess qualities for protecting the house from the evil and bringing peace.
WEARING FRAGRANT SACHETS
Chinese people, especially children, hang around their necks fragrant sachets, which are made from a variety of sewn bags and include the powders of acorus, Artemisia, realgar and other fragrant items, to avoid catching contagious diseases and to keep evil spirits away.
All of these activities were regarded by the ancients as an effective way of preventing disease and evil, while promoting good health and well-being.