Tomorrow China will be celebrating Duanwu Festival, known to most English speakers as Dragon Boat Festival.
When we taught in China, I always asked my students to explain the traditions and history of their holidays to me – but this particular one seemed hard for them to explain. There were many origin stories and many traditions to honor.
It almost seemed as if several holidays had merged into one – and some believe this is exactly what happened. It’s a day with a lot of roots, splitting and spreading in many directions.
From my conversations (and a little bit of research), here’s what you should know:
Passions of a Patriotic Poet
The most common story behind Dragon Boat Festival is that it honors Chinese poet and minister, Qu Yuan.
Qu Yuan was said to be a fair and loyal government official who truly loved his nation and the people he served.
But his corrupt political enemies convinced the king to strip him of his position and send him into exile.
While in exile, he discovered a love for poetry, stories, and legends. He began traveling through the country, collecting folk tales and finding inspiration in them to compose his own literature and verses celebrating the people of China.
His writings spoke of a love for his culture and history, but they also described a depressed man who mourned his own exile and the vulnerability of a beautiful country under corrupt leadership.
Eventually, legend says that his depression lead him to commit suicide – drowning himself in the Miluo River.
He is said to have left a final piece of poetry as his suicide note, entitled ‘The Fisherman,’ saying he must take these drastic measures to ensure he die an innocent who always remained true to his values.
The locals, who loved Qu Yuan dearly, raced out on their boats trying to save him – they were too late.
When they couldn’t immediately find him in the river, they worried the fish would start to eat his body before they could pull him to shore and perform the appropriate ceremonies.
They dropped balls of sticky rice into the water, hoping the fish would eat these instead while they continued the search. This is why sticky rice is often prepared during this festival, to be eaten or tossed into a river.
The Best Revenge Story You’ll Ever Hear
But not everyone agrees that Dragon Boat Festival is for Qu Yuan.
In some regions of China, General Wu Zixu is honored on this day. Like Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu’s father was said to have been a loyal and honest politician during a time of corruption. So when his father was unjustly executed, he fled the state while vowing revenge.
Legends claim that the grief of losing his father and the stress of being on the run caused Wu Zixu to age very quickly – his hair turned white and his face became like that of an old man. This disguised him from anyone who knew him before, and he was able to become an advisor to the prince of a neighboring state.
By the time the prince took the throne as king, Wu Zixu was his most trusted advisor. Using this influence, he guided the new king into a war against the state that had wrongly killed his father. Although outnumbered, they were victorious and the king who executed Wu Zixu’s father was killed.
One night, still not completely satisfied with his revenge, Wu Zixu went to his enemy’s corpse and delivered 300 lashes to it.
The Heartbreaking Story of a Devoted Daughter
Or maybe Dragon Boat Festival finds its meaning in the memory of a young Confucian girl: Cao E. Her father, a local Shaman, was performing a ritual by the Shun River and fell in. His body was not immediately found, but everyone presumed that he had died – except his daughter.
Cao E would not accept that her father had died until she saw a body.
For three days, the local people watched her search the river. On the fourth day she was also missing. On the fifth day, the bodies of Cao E and her father washed to shore together.
As loyalty to one’s parents (and ancestors) is central to Confucian beliefs, this act was incredibly moving to the local religious community. In her honor, a new temple was built and the river was renamed for her.
Pleasing the Dragon King
The final theory is that all these stories have been attached to a very ancient festival, celebrated during a period when the Chinese people worshipped a mythological dragon king. The dragon king controlled the weather, and honoring him near the summer solstice was said to ensure a bountiful harvest in the fall and winter.
Have you ever celebrated Dragon Boat Festival in China before? Which origin story were you told?