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Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Festival)

Holiday Date: Fifth day of the fifth lunar month



The Duanwu Festival is believed to have originated in ancientChina. A number of theories exist about its origins as a number of folk traditions and explanatory myths are connected to its observance. Today the best known of these relates to the suicide in 278 BCE of Qu Yuan, poet and statesman of theChukingdom during the Warring States period.


Qu Yuan

The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE) of the ancient state ofChuduring the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of theChuroyal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance; he was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the capital ofChu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in theMiluoRiveron the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.


It is said that the local people, who admired him, dropped sticky rice triangles wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river to feed the fish. The rice was wrapped so that fish would not eat Qu Yuan's body and eat the rice instead. This is said to be the origin of zongzi. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.


Wu Zixu 

Despite the modern popularity of the Qu Yuan origin theory, in the former territory of the state of Wu, the festival commemorated Wu Zixu (died 484 BCE). Wu Zixu 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, with his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. After his death, in places such asSuzhou, Wu Zixu is remembered during the Duanwu Festival to this day.


Pre-existing holiday 

Some modern researchers suggest that the stories of Qu Yuan and Wu zixu were superimposed on a pre-existing holiday tradition. The promotion of these stories over the earlier lore of the holiday seems to have been encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence at a time when other belief systems were seen as gaining influence inChina.


The deaths (and lives) of both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu were recorded in Sima Qian's Shiji, completed 187 and 393 years after the events, respectively. While Sima Qian gave high praise to both characters, there is no evidence showing any link between the historic account of these characters in Shiji and the popularity of the festival in their names.


Many traditional rituals of the Duanwu Festival emphasize the avoidance of disease. The desire to prevent health hazards associated with the mid-summer months may have been the primary original motive behind the holiday.


Another theory, advanced by Wen Yiduo, is that the Duanwu Festival had its origins in dragon worship. Support is drawn from two key traditions of the festival: the tradition of zongzi, or throwing food into the river, and dragon boat racing. The food may have originally represented an offering to the dragon king, while dragon boat racing naturally reflects reverence of the dragon and the active yang energy associated with it. This combines with the tradition of visiting friends and family on boats.


Another suggestion is that the festival celebrates a widespread feature of East Asian agrarian societies: the harvest of winter wheat. Offerings were regularly made to deities and spirits at such times: in the ancient Yue, dragon kings; in the ancient Chu, Qu Yuan; in the ancient Wu, Wu Zixu (as a river god); in ancientKorea, mountain gods (see Dano (Korean festival)). As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.


Public holiday 

The festival was long marked as a festival culturally inChina. However, the People's Republic ofChinagovernment, established in 1949, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005, the government began to plan for the re-recognition of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. In 2008, Duanwu was celebrated as not only a festival but also a public holiday in the People's Republic ofChinafor the first time.



Three of the most widespread activities for Duanwu Festival are eating (and preparing) zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats.


Other common activities include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, and wearing perfumed medicine bags. Other traditional activities include a game of making an egg stand at noon (this "game" is one that if you stand at exactly 12.00 noon you will have luck for the next year), and writing spells. All of these activities, together with the drinking of realgar wine, were regarded by the ancients as effective in preventing disease or evil and promoting health and well-being.


In the Republic of China, Duanwu was also celebrated as "Poets' Day," due to Qu Yuan's status asChina's first poet of well renown. In modernTaiwan, zongzi are no longer thrown into rivers, but people still eat them as a holiday tradition and testament to Qu Yuan's self-determination.

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