Duanwu Festival (端午節) also known as Dragon Boat Festival falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. In 2023, it falls on 22nd June (Thursday). The Festival was attributed as a memorial day of Qu Yuan (屈原) ( c 340–278 BCE), a poet-statesman in China who served the king of Chu (楚國) during the Warring States period (戰國時代). Qu served in high offices and advocated various reforms and tried to fight against corruption. Yet, he was slandered by his rival officials and was even falsely accused of treason. Qu was eventually sent to exile. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying (郢) of the capital city of Chu (楚). In 278 BCE, Qu Yuan drowned himself at Miluo River (汨羅江) in protest against the corruption of the era.
Not only was Qu Yuan a true patriot, he is famed for leaving many immortal poems. During the days of his exile, Qu Yuan wrote many famous poems. His love for his country and its people are revealed naturally in his poems. Among his greatest works are Li Sao (離騷)(Encountering Sorrow or Encountering Trouble), Tian Wen (天問)(Asking Questions of Heaven), Jiu Ge (九歌)(Nine Songs), etc. Together with the works of Song Yu (宋玉) made up the majority of Chu Ci (楚辭)(Verses of Chu or Songs of Chu).
At that time the local people, who admired Qu Yuan, raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body. People then hit the drums nosily to scare off the fish in order to protect his body. They also tossed rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish hoping that the fish would not eat the dead body.
This is said to be the origin of ‘zongzi’ (粽子), glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in dried bamboo leaves, reed and other large flat leaves. It comes in different shapes and the most common ones are pyramidal and triangular. There are also many different regional styles with various fillings and can be sweet or savoury containing cooked mung beans, pork, chicken, salted duck eggs, peanuts, chestnuts, etc. Zongzi are often given to friends and relatives during the festival.
Dragon boat race is the most exciting activity on that day. Corporate, community and youth teams compete in the races. Each team is formed of paddlers, a drummer and a steersman, The race originates from the ancient custom of worshipping the Dragon – the god of ruling water. People believe that the races can drive away the evil spirits and bring good luck.
Another custom of the festival is carrying scented sachets (hsiang bao)(香囊) which contain herbs and spices thought to ward off disease. These sachets are typically red and come in many designs such as flowers, birds and animals.
In the past, adults drink hsiung huang (雄黃) wine. (Hsiung huang is also known as realgar, it is red arsenic sulphide which is highly poisonous.)
Two other persons commemorated in the Duanwu Festival
Wu Zixu (伍子胥)
In the former state of Wu (吳)(nowadays Suzhou 蘇州), the festival commemorated Wu Zixu (伍子胥) (died 484 BCE). Wu was a loyal advisor whose advice was ignored by the king to the detriment of the kingdom. Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide by the king Fuchai (吴王夫差), with his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. After his death, in places such as Suzhou (蘇州), Wu is remembered during the Duanwu Festival to this day.
Cao E (曹娥)
A young girl called Cao E (曹娥)(130–143CE) was a native of Shangyu (上虞)(today 浙江紹興 Shaoxing of Zhejiang). She was the daughter of Cao Xu (曹盱) . Cao Xu was a shaman who was talented in singing and dancing. In 143 CE, while Cao Xu was presiding over a ceremony on a boat commemorating Wu Zixu (伍子胥) during the Duanwu Festival, a sudden strong gale shook the boat and he fell into the river and was drowned. Cao E was overwhelmed with grief. She, in an act of filial piety courageously decided to search for her father along the river for 17 days but could not find the body of her father. Cao E eventually dived into the water. After 5 days, she emerged holding her father’s body. Though dead, her face appeared as if she was alive. People in Zhejiang (浙江) commemorated Cao E for her filial piety.
Bibliography & further readings :
Jin Zhilin (2004) Chinese Folk Arts, China Intercontinental Press