Today is the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, which mean something very significant in China: it’s time for 端午节 (Duān Wǔ Jié), the Dragon Boat Festival!
The Dragon Boat Festival is one of China’s oldest and most celebrated holidays, dating back over 2000 years. There are many stories surrounding its origin, but the most popular ones all revolve around an individual named Qu Yuan (屈原).
The core story goes something like this:
During Ancient China’s Warring States Period, Qu Yuan was a loyal and wise minister to the King of the state of Chu (楚). Another state, Qin (秦), was rapidly growing and gaining power; Qu Yuan advocated that Chu join other states in opposition, but not everyone agreed. Eventually (some say it was the other disgruntled ministers, while others say it was a corrupt prince or prime minister), Qu Yuan was defamed, accused of treason, and exiled.
He lived out the rest of his days south of the Yangtze River, in the region that is now China’s Hunan province (湖南) – and he never forgot what had happened, spending his days writing poems about his political and moral ideals and satirizing the corruption plighting his beloved state.
These works, including the autobiographical Lí Sāo (离骚, “Encountering Lament”), Tiān Wèn (天问, “Questions to Heaven”), and Jiǔ Gē (九歌, “Nine Songs”). These, along with other pieces attributed to Qu Yuan, are included in Chǔ Cí (楚辞, “Verses of Chu”), one of the two major historical anthologies of classical Chinese authors. Qu Yuan is considered the first poet in China to have his name associated with his verse; today, his work is highly regarded for its moving language and its patriotism.
In 278 BC, Qu Yuan received news that the state of Chu had been captured by the Qin. Perhaps out of grief, or in despair that he’d been unable to adequately serve his nation, he went to the Miluo River (汨羅江) on the fifth day of the fifth month and committed suicide by throwing himself in, using a large rock to weigh his body down.
The local people, who had greatly admired Qu Yuan, went out in their boats to try to save him, or at least salvage his body. Though they were too late for either, they continued paddling the boats around, throwing things into the water: balls of glutinous rice (to distract the fish from eating the body or to feed Qu Yuan’s spirit) and realgar wine (to anesthetize the fish or to appease the water dragon in the river).
All of these elements have been incorporated into the Dragon Boat Festival we know today. Boat races are held throughout China, and people eat zongzi (粽子) – sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, often with bean curd, egg, or pork centers – as well as drink realgar wine (雄黄酒).
Since 2008, the Dragon Boat Festival has been recognized as a public holiday, although many Chinese take Monday through Wednesday off.
We’re so excited! The festivities await!
WildChina’s Beijing offices will be closed for the Dragon Boat Festival on Wednesday, June 12th. In the meantime, if you have questions about China’s festivals or traveling in China, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Photos credited to Cultural-China.com and Go Love China.