What Is the Origin of the Duanwu Dragon Boat Festival?

A classic Chinese colour ink painting: watching dragon boat race on the Duanwu Festival

Boat racing and zongzi during the Duanwu festival were initially created to pay tribute to Qu Yuan (343 BC – 278 BC), one of China’s greatest poets and statesmen.

Qu Yuan was a high official of the Chu Kingdom during the Warring States era. To be wrongly accused by a group of corrupt high officials and a narrow-minded shallow-hearted king of taking bribery, of neglecting his official duty, of harbouring an ambition to grab power and of being disrespectful to the throne, he was banished from the political circle and lived in the wilderness along Luobo River in today’s Hubei Province.

The king and the officials, while being ultra-capable of framing an innocent man, were unable to save the kingdom’s economy and defend the kingdom’s territory.

Observing the kingdom lost and his aspiration for a better society shattered, Qu Yuan’s heart was broken and drowned himself in the Luobo River (because he couldn’t swim) in early May.

The people of Chu, who loved and respected him dearly, made sticky rice wrapped in reed leaves known as zongzi and dropped the delicacy into the river from boats decorated with authoritative dragon images, in the hope that the man-eating creatures in the water would be attracted to zongzi and spare Qu Yuan’s body.

This is how the Dragon Boat Festival on Duanwu originated. Later this game spread to China’s neighbouring countries (apparently, Qu Yuan wasn’t able to swim when he was alive but could swim to Korea and other southeast countries in death).

In China, particularly in southern China where waterways are plenty, during the Duanwu festival, men are still competing with each other to see who can sail the dragon boat fast in a Qu Yuan rescue mission, although they are no longer throwing any food into rivers; and women are still making zongzi for the festival, although they are no longer inviting river beings to share the cake.

A classic Chinese colour ink painting: watching dragon boat race on the Duanwu Festival

What Is Special Food Consumed During Festival Season?

Like all other festivities in China, this special occasion can not be observed without featured food. Prior to the Duanwu festival, women in a family or neighbourhood would gather together to make zongzi (粽子), using plain or flavoured sticky rice wrapped in reed leaves and decorated with red beans or red dates.

Nowadays, zongzi is sold in China’s supermarkets all year round.

A classic Chinese colour ink painting: offering a special stew as a festival gift.

In the old days, a eunuch would deliver festival stew made of duck meat to his officials at the Duanwu Festival as an emperor’s award.

What Are Customs During Duanwu Festival?

A classic Chinese colour ink painting: Tie colour silk thread on the wrist at the Duanwu Festival (to keep the person attached to this world?)

Tying a coloured silk thread on wrists, particularly on children’s wrists, is one of the customs observed during the Duanwu on lunar May 5, which is considered the most dangerous season for outbreak of epidemics and other infectious diseases.

A classic Chinese colour ink painting: hang a bunch of wormwood at the front door of a household

Decorating the front door with wormwood to purity the incoming qi and prevent the entry of evil spirits during Duanwu season.

What Are Activities Traditionally Taken During Duanwu?

As shown in this classic Chinese colour ink painting, on the Duanwu festival, ladies would practice archery and shoot a flour dough representing an object possessed by harmful elements.

And kids would feed birds, usually carrots, as a way to practice compassion.

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