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The legend behind the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

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Qu Yuan

The legend behind the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

Legends as they happen to be, are events glorified into proportions larger than life and nature. The Duanwu Festival, known to the English speaking world as the Dragon Boat Festival is one of many such events which were inspired by a true life incident. The Duanwu as it so happens, has more than one account for its inspiration. We’ll come to it in a bit after talking at length about the Dragon Boat Festival.

Dragon Boat Festival

An epic boat race as the name suggests, the festival is celebrated on the seventh day (Wuri) of the fifth month (Wuye) of the traditional Chinese Calendar across mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia and Singapore. The Duanwu is expressed in Mandarin as Duanwujie, “Opening the Seventh” and this expression is mirrored in all the other languages as well.

Returning to the origins of the festival, there are 3 distinct stories that claim to be the inspiration behind the boat race. The story most popular in mainland China commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu. Qu was a renowned poet and admired by the local populace. When the Chu kingdom was attacked by rival forces, Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. The locals raced to save him but it was too late. This is said to be the origin of the Dragon Boat Race.

Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan

Another story goes like this. The commemoration Wu Zixu, a Premier of the state of Wu. Wu Zixu was respected by the people of Wu and loved by the King Fuchai. Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide by King Fuchai over a bone of contention and his body was thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. Wu Zixu is remembered in Suzhou during the Duanwu Festival.

You would be surprised to learn about a third legend that claims to honour the date. This story is prevalent in much of northeastern Zhejiang and celebrates the memory of a young girl Cao E. Cao E’s father Cao Xu was a shaman and while presiding over the ceremony of Wu Zixu, fell into the river during the Duanwu Festival. Cao E decided to hunt for him in the river. The duo were found five days later, dead from drowning. Eight years later, a temple was built in Cao E’s memory and the river Shun where she had drowned was now named Cao’e.

Today, the festival is celebrated across China and is a public holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Three of the most widespread activities surrounding the festival are preparing and eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine and racing dragon boats.

Zongzi

Zongzi

Other traditional activities include a game of making an egg stand at noon and writing spells. All of these activities were believed to be effective prevention of disease and evil, while promoting health and well being. Being a communal activity centered around merriment and wine, it isn’t hard to see why the ancients encouraged it.

Realgar Wine

Realgar Wine

The Dragon Boat Race took place today in Hong Kong at Victoria Harbour

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