There are few sights more spectacular than a fleet of boats decorated to look like
dragons racing to the finish line, paddlers moving their oars in one fluid motion
while the drummer thumps out a steady rhythm. Once practically unknown outside the
Chinese community, today you'll find enthusiastic crowds cheering on racers participating
in dragon boat festivals in many places around the world. But the dragon boat festival
is much more than an athletic event. It is the third largest festival in the Chinese
calendar, following the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon festival. And, like
these two other traditional holidays, food plays an important and symbolic role in
Festival of the Double Fifth
Although the races are held on different dates throughout the world, the dragon boat
festival officially falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar
calendar. There are several legends surrounding the origin of the festival, which
is also called the "Festival of the Double Fifth." Traditionally, the fifth lunar
month is supposed to be fraught with danger, as the forces of yin and yang are out
of balance. One theory is that dragon boat racing began as a way of paying homage
to the God of Water so that the farmers would have good crops. During that month,
people would also hang calamus and moxa on their front doors in an attempt to ward
off evil spirits.
Murder and Banishment?
But bad as the fifth month was, the fifth day of that month was especially inauspicious.
It was said that a child born on that day would be extremely difficult to raise,
bringing his parents much grief. Another legend surrounding the origin of the dragon
boat festival concerns a man who had the misfortune to be born on this unlucky day.
Tian Wen survived murder attempts and banishment by his father to eventually to become
the Prime Minister of a Chinese province. Determined that no other child should suffer
similar mistreatment, he ordered that the fifth day of the fifth month be considered
a regular day, as propitious as any other. Another theory, put forth by Professor
Wen Yi Duo, is that celebrations were held on this day as a sacrifice to the ancient
dragon, in honour of the beast's birthday.
The Real Story - Qu Yuan!
But the most popular story revolves around the life and death of one of China's most
famous citizens. Qu Yuan was both a statesman and China's first known poet. During
his lifetime, he served as Minister of Law and Ordinance for his home State of Chu
in southern China. Unfortunately, Qu Yuan lived during the Time of the Warring States
(481 - 221 BC) when larger, more powerful states were trying to consolidate their
power. One of these states, Qin, in the north, was determined to control the state
of Chu. Qin leaders gave the King of Chu a peace treaty to sign, which they had no
intention of honouring. Suspicious of their motives, Qu Yuan advised the King not
to sign the treaty. Unfortunately, the King was threatened by Qu Yuan's stature,
believing the poet was trying to gain greater political power in the government.
Not only did he sign the treaty, but he banished Qu Yuan to a remote region in Hunan
province. Eventually, Chu was defeated by the stronger Qin state.
The Beginnings of the Myth
It is thought that the news of Chu's defeat destroyed Qu Yuan's will to live. As
a result, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 278 B.C., he committed suicide
by grasping a large rock and throwing himself into the Miluo River. Local fisherman
raced to their boats to recover his body, beating drums and splashing their paddles
on the water to scare away the fish. But it was all to no avail. In one version of
the legend, they began throwing rice on the water as a sacrifice to their dead hero,
and to nourish his spirit. One night, the image of Qu Yuan appeared to one of the
fisherman in a dream. In the dream, the poet revealed that the fish were eating the
rice. He asked that the rice be wrapped in silk to protect it. Later, the silk was
replaced with bamboo leaves. In another version, the rice packets were meant for
the fish, in an effort to keep them from devouring Qu Yuan's body. But whichever
version you choose to believe, the death of Qu Yuan gave rise to both the dragon
boat races and celebrating the day with zongzi - delicious dumplings made with glutinous
rice that are stuffed in bamboo leaves.