This description is an example of one of the widespread inaccuracies in western, and ah . . . Chinese literature too, involving Chinese culture and history. The following is a more accurate representation of what I call more appropriately the 'Dragon Festival'.
By Frank A. Doonan
The Dragon Festival, 端午节 Duanwu Jie or端阳节 Duanyang Jie, sometimes called the Dragon Boat Festival, is celebrated some time in June on fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The origins of the festival are likely very ancient. According to Wen Yiduo 闻一多(1898-1946), a modern poet and scholar this festival had its beginnings over 5,000 years ago in the ancient kingdoms of Wu and Yue located in present day Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. The celebration of this festival was likely inspired as ceremonies, sacrifices and offerings to the Dragon of the Eastern Sea to prevent the floods, drought, and plagues of insects and disease that often occurred around this time of year.
This day was considered to be the beginning of an important period in the change of seasons that could make it a bountiful year or a very bad year. It was considered a day that could possibly bring bad fortunes, because of the potential for spring and summer disasters. The purpose of most of these ceremonies was to appease the great Father Dragon of the Eastern Sea and other gods to prevent drought, floods, plague, insect swarms like grasshoppers, and diseases. The throwing of zongzi in the river was originally part of this ceremony. Many of the ancient ceremonies and traditions are still commonly practiced on China, though they mostly do not have the same meaning today. The overwhelming threat of floods, drought, plagues and disease is not as great today. Modern science and technology has replaced these beliefs with alternative solutions to these problems.
Traditionally in ancient times offerings, like 粽子zongzi first described as rice or millet filled bamboo tubes were thrown into the river or sea to appease the dragon. Zongzi is a popular traditional dish eaten all year in South China, and it became the central food representing the tradition of Dragon Festival all over Chins. It takes many forms and uses different fillings around China, but the most common form is a triangular four point wrapping made of a wide bamboo or reed leaf common in China. The practice of wrapping the zongzi in leaves is said to begin during the reign of Emperor Guangwu (25-26 AD) of the Han Dynasty Qu Hui saw a man near the traditional site where 屈原Qu Yuan committed suicide on the Miluo River. The man told Qu Hui he was the Minister in charge of three aristocratic families of the Chu Kingdom. He also told him, “It is okay to make offerings in memory of me by throwing packaged rice into the river. In the past the fish ate all the rice in the bamboo tubes, therefore in the future please wrap them in Chinaberry leaves and tie them with colored thread. The fish will be afraid of these two things and will not eat your offerings.”
Today zongzi filling varies, but the main filling consists of white millet called glutinous rice and possibly yellow millet, or a mix of the two. In the south the zongzi are usually larger and contains salty dried pork, beef or chicken, or a salty egg yolk. In the north they are smaller usually plain, but often contain Chinese dates, peanuts, walnuts, or other stuff, and they are often eaten with sugar. Some eat their eggs before sunrise, and some dye the eggs red.
"Fetching noon water" was the traditional practice of getting water from a well at noon, believing it had special medicinal properties to cure illness while an egg that is stood on its end at twelve o'clock means a whole year of good luck. Some knock two eggs together and which ever one does not break promises the winner good luck, health and fortune
Rainbow colored decorations and adornments are common today as a part of the festival. The decorations range from simple forms of folded paper to elaborate colorful folk crafts. Many people wear bracelets made of five colors of thread or string on their wrists or ankles. The colors vary but seem to always include red, yellow and blue. Other colors used are white, pink, black and green. In some places the traditional colors chosen are the same as those that are use to paint the dragon boats in the race. These ornaments were believed to offer protection against disease and misfortune. They put these on sometime between the first day of the fifth lunar month, Dragon Festival Day and take them off and throw them into a running stream during the first heavy rain after that day. One story I was told is that the five color thread turns into a baby dragon as it journey’s to the sea. Other colorful items include red or rainbow colored paper gourds, and mythical figures.
Mythical persons also play a role in the festival. Placing a picture of 钟馗Zhongkui, the legendary ghost catcher, on the front door to guard the house is still commonly done today. Small stuffed colorful human figures, and the animals of the Chinese astrology are hung around the house. Monkeys are especially popular in some areas.
Dragon boat racing is an important part of the festivities, particularly in the soth along the larger rivers and in reality older than the death of 屈原Qu Yuan, whom some believe the race commemorates the search for him after he jumped into the river. It began in the south along the Chang Jiang River and its tributaries, but they are now performed elsewhere in China today where there is a large river. Dragon boats are about 20 to 40 meters long, made to look like a dragon, and painted red, white, yellow, green and black. The races begin with a ceremony honoring the Dragon King.
Other traditions focused on traditional medicines and practices that were intended to prevent or cure illnesses that were common in the summer. The herbs used in this period included wormwood, mugwort, elsholtzia (Aromatic Madder) and cattail. These leaves are placed around the house usually above doors and windows. Baths, salves and balms using herbal medicines are widely used. Children wear necklaces with bags of herbs. Some use a branch from the peach tree with immature peaches, and sometimes wrap it with the herbs. Other traditions include placing wormwood or mugwort leaves behind the ear before sunrise on Dragon Festival.
Realgar was believed to be an antidote for poisons, cure for disease, and effective in driving away evil spirits and insects. Traditionally many men drank ‘Spring red liquor’, which was white liquor colored with realgar, and it was used to write wang, the character for king on the forehead of male children. Some still drink this or some variation of traditional white liquor with their zongzi. Unfortunately Realgar is Arsenic sulfide and potentially very poisonous.
Later the people of the Chu Kingdom began to commemorate the death of 屈原Qu Yuan (~340-278 BC), the famous poet and advisor to the king during the last years of the Chu Kingdom during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). At about the young age of 36 屈原Qu Yuan became an important advisor in the royal court of the three aristocratic families of the Chu Kingdom. 屈原Qu Yuan proposed the development of peaceful relations and alliances with other states in this turbulent period, because the Chu Kingdom was relatively weak. He was opposed by the more ambitious and corrupt Jin Shang, the king’s aide, and Zhenxiu, the Queen’s consort. The honorable devoted Qu Yuan lost favor in the court and he was banished by the king.
Living in exile 屈原Qu Yuan wrote many poems expressing his sorrow and distress for declining corrupt state of affairs of the Chu Kingdom. At about 278 BC the Qin Kingdom defeated the Chu and captured the capital. 屈原Qu Yuan was heart broken, because his beloved Chu Kingdom lay in ruins, disgraced and betrayed by the corrupt royal families. In despair Qu Yuan committed suicide by holding a stone in his arms and jumped into the Miluo River near present day Changsha in Henan Province. The traditional belief among the Chu people is that 屈原Qu Yuan committed suicide on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This symbolic self-sacrifice by 屈原Chu Yuan may have been made at this time in the tradition of Chinese custom to make sacrifices at this time to prevent disasters from befalling the people of the Kingdom. In commemoration of 屈原Chu Yuan’s passing the people of Chu continued the tradition of throwing bamboo tubes filled with rice into the Miluo River on Dragon boat Festival Day in memory of him as people all over China continue to do today.
Stories from my students and friends.
China Radio International, 1998. Cultural Background of China Folk Customs. World Publishing Company, Beijing, China.
Xiu Tang, 1988. Traditional Festivities of the Han People of China, What’s New in China Series No. 21. China Reconstruction Press, Beijing, China.
Edited by shunyadragon, 08 June 2011 - 09:34 AM.