Article by XIANEASE
It’s more than likely that by the time you read this article, the Dragon Boat Festival will have already passed. However, it’s also pretty likely that you’ll have gone through the entire holiday without learning much more about it than dragon-shaped boats and zongzi. Thus, we felt it would be a good idea to take a closer look at this millennia-old holiday and see what it’s really about.
There are a couple of origin stories about the Dragon Boat Festival: the most common one is about a poet named Qu Yuan, while the others are a bit more regional (more about those ones later).
Qu Yuan was a citizen of the State of Chu during the Warring States period (just for reference, there were seven Warring States: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin. Spoiler alert, the Qin won, creating the Qin Dynasty and the first unified kingdom in Chinese history). Qu Yuan was a patriotic man born to a prominent family from the ruling class and a member of the emperor’s court. As the Warring States period began to heat up, he advised the Chu emperor to ally with the State of Qi so that they might better challenge the largest and most powerful state, Qin. While this advice may or may not have been good advice, its mere suggestion allowed rival officials to label him a traitor, and Qu Yuan soon became a victim of political intrigue. He was summarily exiled by the Chu emperor.
This unfortunate turn of events did nothing to temper Qu Yuan’s patriotism, and he began to channel his love of country into poetry, some of which are still quite well known today. Several decades later, his worst fears came to pass and the Qin conquered the Chu. So distraught, he committed suicide by drowning himself in a river. The popular legend claims that Qu Yuan’s fellow villagers ran to the river and, finding themselves too late to save him, began to throw rice in the water and beat it with their paddles, so as to scare away any hungry fish or spirits looking for a tasty piece of poet.
Southeastern China (primarily Zhejiang and Jiangsu) has differing origins for the Dragon Boat Festival. The first one involves another member of the State of Chu, one that predates Qu Yuan, named Wu Zixu. His family was caught in a trap set by a corrupt official, and after his brother and father were executed he fled to the State of Wu, where he later led a military campaign against the Chu and gained favor with the emperor. A change in management in the State of Wu (and yet another corrupt, conniving official) led to Wu Zixu falling from grace because he was perceived to be crying wolf about a threat from the State of Yue, and the new emperor ordered him to commit suicide on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (which happens to be the day Dragon Boat is celebrated). Wu Zixu asked the emperor to cut out his eyes, so that he might watch when the Yue stormed the city gates. A decade later, his prediction came true.
The final possible origin of the Dragon Boat Festival, also recognized in Zhejiang and Jiangsu, honors an act of filial piety on the part of a woman named Cao E. Her father had drowned in a river and his body was unable to be recovered. Upset over all of this, as she well should have been, she paced the banks of the river for days before entering herself, and according to legend her and her father’s body were found together days later (on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, no less).
Though the holiday has been celebrated for thousands of years (including a brief tenure as “Poet’s Day” in the 20th Century under the nationalists, who sought to leverage the festival’s patriotic qualities), it only became an official holiday under the People’s Republic of China in 2008, when the May Day Golden Week was abolished and replaced with a number of traditional festivals scattered throughout the year. Nowadays it’s almost universally celebrated with the eating of zongzi, a glutinous, pyramidal rice dumpling and with dragon boat races.
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