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The Legend of the Dragon Boat Festival

Most Chinese festivals are based on generations-old legends that are passed on. These festivals are celebrated, not just for enjoyment, but more for the preservation of traditions and heritage. The Duan Wu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival) falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

In addition to the Dragon Boat Festival, the Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival are the most important festivals for Chinese. Another name for Duan Wu is “Tien Zhong.” Ancient people called the fifth month “the vicious month” or “the month of poison,” as the weather got extremely hot, and insects of all kinds bred rapidly and easily transmitted diseases.

To counter such conditions, they used “tien zhong wu rui,” five plants known as calamus (rushes or sedges), Chinese mugwort, pomegranate blossoms, garlic, and the morning star lily for detoxification. The Dragon Boat Festival promoted a kind of hygiene observance in ancient times.

To commemorate the ancient poet Qu Yuan, some named it the “Poet Festival.” It is also known as the “Calamus Festival,” as every household hangs up calamus to ward off evil. Another more well-known name is the “Dragon Boat Festival,” named for the ritual of boat races that are held on the day.

That festival originated during the Warring States period in China over 2,000 years ago. There are quite a few versions of its origin.

dragon boat festival qu yuan
One version of the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan, a resident of the Chu state during the Warring States Period. (Image: wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

To commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan was a resident of the Chu state during the warring period. According to the annals of Shi Ji, he was a minister for Emperor Huai. He served the nation whole-heartedly and advocated an alliance with other states to counter the Qin state, but was bad-mouthed and set up by Zi Lan’s gang of the aristocratic tribe.

He was exiled to the region of Yuan and Xiang. During his exile, Qu Yuan composed some heart-felt and influential poems on the stability of the nation and the livelihood of the people. The Qin later conquered the Chu. Qu Yuan was heart-broken and despaired.

With his last verse written on the fifth of May, he drowned himself by holding onto a big boulder in the Yu Luo River, demonstrating his patriotic heart with his own life. The Chu people were saddened and all ran to the river to pay their respects to Qu Yuan.

Fishermen tried to find his body, but could not. In order not to let the fish eat the body, one of the fishermen threw the rice and eggs into the river that he had offered to Qu Yuan’s spirit — others followed. A doctor poured strong wine into the river to toxicate all monsters and habitants of the river.

Being afraid that a monster might eat the rice, people threw in rice wrapped in chinaberry leaves with colorful strings, which later symbolized the rice dumplings with which the festival is celebrated today.

To commemorate the dutiful daughter Cao E, of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Cao E was a resident of Shang Yu from the Eastern Han Dynasty. Her father drowned in a river, but the body was nowhere to be found. Cao E was only 14. She cried all day and night along the river. Seventeen days had passed; it was the fifth of May. Cao E jumped into the river. Five days later, she came up with her father’s body. This story became a legend.

The county officials ordered a stele to be made to record and praise her. People built a Cao E temple at the spot where she jumped into the river in memory of her virtuous duty. They renamed the village where she lived Cao E Village and the river in which her father drowned the Cao E River.

Origin from the ceremonial totem of the ancient Yue tribe

Recent archaeological finds have unearthed earthenware along the middle lower Chang Jiang River (also known as the Yangtze River). These pieces of pottery were decorated with geometric patterns, suggesting the existence of a cultural heritage dating from the New Stone Age.

It was deduced that it was a site occupied by a tribe that worshipped the dragon totems, namely the historical Bai Yue tribe. The Bai Yue tribe lived along the river and they saw themselves as the offspring of the dragon.

They used a lot of chololithic tools made of stone and copper, the most unusual piece being the 3-legged geometric-patterned earthen cooking vessel that was unique to the Bei Yue tribe. The tribe survived to the Qin and Han dynasties. Duan Wu was a festival they set up to pay their respects to their ancestors.

During these historic thousand years, most of the Bai Yue people assimilated into the Han tribe. The remainder became the southern minority groups. Since then, Duan Wu has become a festival for all Chinese.

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