Folk Customs of the Dragon Boat Festival


The Duanwu Festival, known as the Dragon Boat Festival in the west, is a Chinese tradition that began more than 2,000 years ago in the Spring Autumn and Warring States Period. In actual fact, the festival has several different names, including the Duanyang Festival, Chongwu Festival, Tianzhong Festival, Tianchang Festival, and the Festival in May. Before the Tang Dynasty, it was known as "the Fifth Day of the Fifth Lunar Month", but then it was changed to Duanwu. Duan () means the first.

The origins of the festival are obscure, and vary according to different folk traditions. One tradition holds that it was to commemorate Wu Zixu, a loyal official of the State of Wu during the Warring States Period. Another tradition believes it was started in memory of Cao E, a filial daughter of the Eastern Han Dynasty. A famous scholar named Wen Yiduo in modern times believed it was originally a totemic sacrifice in the ancient southern Yue and Wu tribes. However, the most widespread belief is that it was originally to commemorate the great patriotic poet Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan Qu Yuan

Born in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period, Qu Yuan grew up to be an able diplomat and extremely knowledgeable man of letters. As a trusted confidant of King Huai, he held many important positions. At the time, there were seven states fiercely struggling for supremacy. Qu Yuan proposed that the State of Chu should ally with the State of Qi in order to be able to better contest the supremacy of the powerful State of Qin. However, the court was full of intrigue and bitter rivalries. Pro-Qin court officials said many evil things about Qu Yuan, and sowed distrust toward Qu Yuan in the King's mind.

Later king Huai was duped into visiting the Kingdom of Qin, and subsequently died there. His son, Xiang, became the next king and sent Qu Yuan into exile in a remote part of Hunan Province. During his exile, Qu Yuan was highly concerned with the fate of the State of Chu and penned many patriotic poems.

In 278 , when Qu Yuan was 62, tragedy struck the State of Chu when Qin troops overran the capital. On the fifth day of the fifth month, Qu Yuan was so devastated that he held a big stone in his arms and threw himself into the Miluo River. Because he was such a respected figure, local people rowed boats out on the river to search for him, but it was too late. When they realized that he was indeed dead, they threw dumplings and rice wrapped in reed leaves into the water, in the hope that the fish would eat this instead of Qu Yuan's body.

Dragon boats
Dragon boats Dragon boats

Holding dragon boat races and celebrating with this kind of food, known as zongzi, evolved into a custom that continues to this day. During the 1940s, the celebration was named Poet's Day, and since then many people have used the day to compose and appreciate poems, and to celebrate its other customs.

The tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival has now been continued for over 2,000 years, but its customs have remained largely the same. Dried Chinese mugwort or calamus is usually hung on doors, zongzi is symbolically prepared and eaten, and rice wine with realgar powder is served. People carry small pouches stuffed with fragrant spices, sacrifices are prepared for ceremonies, and, of course, dragon boat races are held. Dragon boat racing has also become an international sport with its own set of rules.

Hanging Chinese mugwort of calamus is a custom that originated in the period of the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589). The fragrance of mugwort is not only pleasant, but also has the power to deter worms and mosquitoes. Calamus is a kind of aquatic plant that has similar effects. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, houses and courtyards are traditionally cleaned and scrubbed and dried Chinese mugwort or calamus is hung on door lintels to help kill germs and hence prevent disease.

This custom has some basis in scientific reasoning. Summer arrives in the fifth lunar month and the days are therefore longer and hotter. According to the theories of traditional Chinese medicine, people should pay particular attention to what they eat, how they dress, and their daily activities at the intersection of the seasons because of the health risks associated with cool air meeting hot air.

For the same reason, a small amount of realgar powder is consumed on the day. This practice was started in the Ming Dynasty. In Chinese medicine, realgar has been used to cure worm bites since ancient times.

By far the favorite event of the day is the dragon boat races that take place in river towns across southern China. As mentioned above, the original intention behind the boat races was to save the life of Qu Yuan. Nowadays, however, the racing is an exciting and happy event and the participants dress in festive costumes. Races are kicked off with starting guns, and the colorfully decorated boats are cheered on by riverside spectators. The festive atmosphere is also enhanced by the sounds of firecrackers being set off.

Zongzi Eggs

In its earliest form, zongzi was named angled broomcorn millet, and was used as a part of the sacrifices made to the ancestors. By the Ming Dynasty, the broomcorn millet was changed to glutinous rice; but the method of preparation remained the same. The rice is first soaked in water for a couple of days, after which it is wrapped in triangle or rectangle-shaped bamboo or reed leaves, which is then bound with cotton thread. To improve the flavor, dates or beans are often added in northern China, and egg yolk, preserved meat, ham or even cream is often added in southern China. Zongzi is often given as a festival gift to relatives and friends. This delicacy is not only a Chinese favorite but has also become popular in many Asian countries.

Another Dragon Boat Festival custom is concerned with the well-being of the family's children. On the morning of the festival a five-colored thread, representing the five directions of north, south, east, west and center, will be tied about the wrist, ankle and neck of children in the family. The children must stay silent while this is being done, and after that, the threads should not be torn, cut or thrown away at will. Only when the first summer rain comes, or when the children take their first summer bath, the threads are untied and thrown into a river. People believed that the magical properties of the auspicious thread would protect the children from being bitten by scorpions or snakes, and after it is thrown in the river, any possible disease would be washed away by the water leaving the children healthy and well. Apart from this practice, sometime one would wear a pouch at the festival that may be wrapped in five-colored threads, or sewn with small pieces of cloth that would be filled with fragrant essence.

Guardian Guardians Guardians

The Dragon Boat Festival remains to this day one of the favorite festivals of Chinese people. For preservation purposes, it has even been listed as a national holiday.

Source: A Kaleidoscope of Chinese Culture. "SINOLINGUA".