Are You Celebrating this Year’s Chinese Dragon Boat Festival?

On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Chinese and Taiwanese citizens celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. The origins of the festival are contested, but many will commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu, who was killed for offering the king military advice. While Dragon Boat races are now a  popular sport worldwide , the original festival was used to promote a sense of community, offer entertainment, and to several famous figures in Chinese history (such as Qu Yuan).

How did Dragon Boat Racing Come to Be?

There are numerous theories and myths as to how the Dragon Boat Festival came into existence, but by far the most popular tale is that of Qu Yuan, a government official in the State of Chu. Prior to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), there were seven divided states in what is now mainland China. Qu Yuan suggested joining forces with the State of Qi in order to battle against the State of Qu, as well as fortifying the military. Many noblemen disagreed with Qu Yuan’s strategies, and Qu Yuan is believed to have in turn criticized the aristocrat Zi Lan, which subsequently led to his being exiled ( Traditional Chinese Festivals)

While in exile, he wrote numerous patriotic poems that exemplified his love for his country that would later earn him much acclaim and renown amongst Chinese citizens. On the fifth day of the fifty month in the year 278 BC, Qu Yuan was told that the State of Qin has captured his homeland(the State of Chu), so he later drowned himself in a nearby river due to the distressing news.  When the townspeople had heard of his death, fishermen took to their boats in order to find his body, and local citizens threw food into the river so that fish would leave Qu Yuan’s body intact ( Travel China Guide).

The Dragon Boat Festival is also attributed to Wu Zixu, the son of a royal tutor in the State of Chu. After overhearing rumors of rebellion, The King ordered Wu Zixu’s father to be killed, so Wu fled to the State of Wu, where he befriended Prince Guang. There, he was appointed to coordinate the King’s military stratagems, and to construct a city (now called Suzhou) that incorporated environmental and celestial harmonies. In 506 BC, after a successful capture of the Stateof Chu, he was renamed the Duke of Shen.

Wu Zixu’s good fortune began to cease after the King’s death,  and was largely distrusted b the new king, King Fuchai. Wu Zixu warned King Fuchai that he must capture the neighboring State of Yue before its king attacked the State of Wu. The king instead listed to the advisor Bo Pi, who  had been bribed by the State of Yue into fooling the king. Before he carried out his imperially-imposed death, Wu Zixu asked to  have his eyeballs placed on top of the city gates so that he could watch the State of Wu fall to the State of Yue.  His body was later thrown into a river near Suzhou. Within ten years, the King of Yue had conquered the State of Wu and King Fuchai chose to end his life due to intense shame and regret.

Despite the popularity of the tale of Qu Yuan, many still believe that the Dragon Festival is honor or Wu Zixu, who also died on the fifth day of the fifth month.  Moreover, many commemorate not only his death, but his strong love and devotion to his father and brother, both of whom were executed by order of the King of Chu. Wu Zixu’s tale is so inspiring and touching that in some parts of China, he is viewed as a  of river god called “God of the Waves” ( Beijing International).


How do People Celebrate the Festival in Contemporary China?

Due to Qu Yuan and Wi Zixu’s dying on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar, many commemorate their deaths with the Dragon Boat Festival. Boats are carved to have dragon heads and bodies, because dragon spirits were traditionally believed to the guardians of rivers,  Since the intense rowing mimics the fishermen’s harried search for Qu Yuan’s body, the festival simultaneously takes on an athletic, religious, and communal significance ( Traditional Chinese Festivals)

People also cook zongzi, or rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves, because it is believed that Qu Yuan’s mourners threw this into the river to feed the fish. Depending on the region, zongzi will be filled with glutinous (sticky) rice, jujube, red beans, corn, or pork. It is also popular to drink realgar wine, which a doctor has poured into the river so as to intoxicate and pacify the marine life (Traditional Chinese Festivals)

Many people will hang mugwort and calalmus leaves in their households during the Dragon Boat Festival , because their fragrance is believed to repel mosquitoes and sanitize the air. You may also find a picture of Zhong Kui, a fierce warrior, hung in homes this time of year, as his portrait is believe to scare away demons and harmful spirits ( Children typically wear a five-color thread around their wrists, ankles, and neck, so as to protect them from disease. The children cannot speak to their parents while they are tying on the strings, nor can they remove the thread and toss into the river until the first summer rain has fallen. It is also popular practice for children to wear a sachet of herbs or perfume around their neck so at to protect against evil ( Travel China Guide)


Why Are the Boats Carved as Dragons?

Dragons are one of the most auspicious and common symbols in Chinese iconography and folklore. It is believed that every river was guarded by its own dragon spirit, who would not only affect the weather and tides, but could take the shape of several different animals, was exceptionally wise, and could bless those in his good graces ( Primary Source). Moreover, the dragon would battle with humans if he became agitated from the incessant gong and drum-beating at the festival, and would produce rainfall that ensured a plentiful harvest for celebrants ( China Now)



Where Can I Celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in Pittsburgh?

Every year, the Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival holds a dragon boat races in mid to late September. They also feature great food, live dancing and musical performances, arts and crafts, stalls of Asian clothing, jewelry and fans, and give guests the opportunity to try rowing in one of the dragon boats. Their 2013 date has yet to be announced, but check out their website for pictures and even more information.



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