Colorful Dragon Boats? Famous Dragon Boat Races and Zongzi. Take a Peek at our Team discovers the real meaning of this important Chinese festival.
Duanwu Festival, or more commonly known in the West as the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the grandest festivals in China and is celebrated every 5th day of the 5th lunar month or around June in western calendar. This year, it falls on June 18. The most anticipated part of the festival is watching the heart-stopping race of elaborately decorated boats shaped in the form of dragons.
There are many legends surrounding the evolution of how the Dragon Boat Festival in China came to be celebrated. While some are more well-known than others, it is undisputed that festival can trace its first celebrations back over 2000 years ago. Like most ancient traditions, sometimes it’s not always just one legend over the other but an incorporation of all the stories told over time that create how the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated in China today.
The most famous legend is about Qu Yuan, one of the first poets in China. A very patriotic man, he loved his country and wrote plenty of poems dedicated to China. Facing many adversities and a powerful opposition from rich and influential opponents against his progressive ideas such as enriching his people’s culture and the country’s military strength against threatening Qin State, he was exiled by the King Huai. When his country was finally invaded by the Qin’s, too broken hearted he finished his last poem Huai Sha (Embracing Sand) and while embracing a heavy rock, plunged himself to the depths of the Miluo River on the 5th day of 5th month.
It was said that locals raced off towards the river to retrieve Qu Yuan’s body and thus, the tradition of boat racing was evolved from. To keep the fishes from nibbling on his body, the locals threw rice cakes (zongzi) and a doctor poured wine (realgar wine) over the river to make the fishes drunk. Hence, people eat zongzi and drink wine during the festival.
Another notable historical character commemorated during the Duanwu festival was Wu Zixu who displayed incredible loyalty to the King Fuchai of Wu. It was said the cunning King Goujian sent a beautiful woman called Xi Shi with whom the King Fuchai fell madly in love with. Wu Zixu warned the king about his imminent danger but instead was punished by being forced to commit suicide and his body thrown into the river on the 5th day of the 5th month.
Fealty is a virtue often remembered during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Filial Peity is another virtue commemorated during the Duanwu festival in China. The origin of this is one many Chinese still holds dear especially in the Northeastern Zhejiang area. A girl named Cao E was a daughter of a shaman who accidentally fell into the Shun River during the festival. Cao E then searched for his father for 3 days and after the 5th day, both her and her father’s body were found on floating on the river. In her honor, the river was renamed Cao’e River and the daughter’s inspiring love to her parent is remembered every Duanwu Festival.
Modern research now believes that it could have originated from dragon worship traditions explaining the spiritual aspect of the festival. The zongzi is said to be offerings to the dragon king and the boat racing is believed to reflect reverence for the dragon and the Yang energy associated with it.
The mixture of stories and legend is a testament of how enduring the Duanwu Festival or Dragon Boat Festival in China is. Over time, stories have been passed down to commemorate notable virtues and characters regardless if they are historical or spiritual in nature. But one thing is for certain, every year on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, we get to be amazed by one of the grandest display of traditional, culture and history in this beautiful country of China.