Facts About the Duanwu Festival or Dragon Boat Festival
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Facts About the Duanwu Festival or Dragon Boat Festival

The Chinese festival known as Duanwu or the Dragon Boat Festival is a national holiday with its origins in mainland China dating back over 2000 years. The festival has strong connections with East and South East Asian culture and celebrated by Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore as well as in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

The festival is also referred to as the Double Fifth as it is always held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2011, the festival was held on the 6th of June, in 2012 it occurs on the 23rd and in 2013 it will take place on the 12th of that month.

The Mandarin name for the festival is Duanwu Jie while the areas around Hong Kong and Macao use the Cantonese name of Tuen Ng Festival. While the origins of the festival go back many generations it was cancelled by the communists during the late 1940’s and only returned as a national holiday in 2008 within mainland China. Similar festivals are held across Asia in Japan, where it is known as Kodomo no hi, in Korea it is called Dano and in Vietnam it is known as Tet Doan Ngo.

The major focus on celebrations held on this day include the practice of racing dragon boats, with many held on rivers across the region, the drinking of realgar wine known as xionghuangjiu and the eating of rice dumplings or zongzi.

The summer solstice or ‘mid summer’ in the traditions of the Asian calendars consider the sun to be at its strongest at this time. The sun, known as ‘yang’ and the dragon ‘long’ together represent the energy of the male; hence the summer solstice (the longest day of the year) is considered to be the peak of male energy within the annual cycle. The dragon is considered the symbol of strength for males associated with this occasion. In comparison the winter solstice or the year’s longest night is thought to represent the height of female energy represented by the moon ‘yue’ and the firebird or phoenix ‘fenghuang.’

Differing theories and myths exist as to the exact origins to the Duanwu Festival; they all agree that they originated in China with the most famous of these stories relating to the suicide of the poet Qu Yuan in ancient China in 278 BC during the Warring States Period in the Chu kingdom. During the rule of the Zhou Dynasty, Qu Yuan served in the high offices of the royal house, after being accused of treason (in support of neighbouring Qin) he was sent into exile where he reverted to writing poetry. After 28 years of exile the state of Qin captured the Chu capital and Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar.

Those in support of the drowned poet, threw triangle shaped parcels of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river so Qu Yuan could be fed in the afterlife. This is said to be the origin of zongzi, the eating of rice parcels that continues to this day. The origins of dragon boat racing also originate from this time when local people would paddle out onto the river to scare away the fish while the zongzi were dropped into the river.

One alternative to the first theory originates from the State of Wu. The festival commemorates Wu Zixu who was said to have lived from 526 BC until his death in 484 BC. He was a local advisor to the king, Fuchai, his advice of which was ignored which later led to the detriment of the kingdom. Wu Zixu committed suicide on the advice of his king for the latter’s failure and his body was thrown into the river on the fifth of the fifth, according to the lunar calendar. The advisor is remembered in cities such as Suzhou during the Dragon Boat or Duanwu Festival. Inaccuracies to this theory exist as the advisor was credited with the design and building of Suzhou. This began in 514 BC, at that time Wu Zixu would have been only 12 years old.

In the areas of Zhejiang province around Shaoxing, Zhoushan and Ningbo the festival is also used to commemorate Cao E. The girl’s father was a shaman that presided over ceremonies in Shangyu in that province. In 143 AD during the Duanwu Festival, Cao Xu, the shaman fell into the river. His 13 year old daughter spent three days searching the river for her father. After five days the two bodies were recovered, both father and daughter died from drowning. In 151 AD, a temple  built in honour of Cao E was built in the settlement dedicated to her memory, a tributary of the Qiantang River is also named Cao E.


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Comments (3)

Great article! Thank you, John.

Very interesting and informative

We have a dragon boat festival every summer here on the West Coast of Canada. I enjoyed learning more about the Chinese culture in your article.