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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kirby

Dragon Boats And Dumplings - What is Duānwǔ Really About?

China celebrates many unique festivals, but one of the most famous is the Dragon Boat Festival. It's known as Duānwǔ (端午), and starts on the 5th day of the 5th month - according to the Chinese calendar. For 2021, the celebrations start today!

But what is the Dragon Boat Festival, and where did it originate?

To answer this, we need to go back to the Warring States period of Chinese history. During this time, the king of Chu decided to ally with the powerful Qin state. Perhaps it was a tactical move - but one man, Qu Yuan, disapproved of the alliance. For this, he was accused of treason and exiled. During his banishment, Yuan wrote poetry - and his anthology Chu Ci is considered to be one of the most significant collections of Chinese poetry ever written.

Around thirty years later, the Qin state invaded and captured the Chu capital, Ying. When Qu Yuan heard about this, he was so devastated that he threw himself into the Miluo River. The local people rowed out to rescue him, but they couldn't find him.

Instead, they threw rice dumplings into the water to stop the fish and the evil spirits from eating Qu Yuan's body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boating, and also explains the tradition of eating sticky rice dumplings (zongzi - see picture) at the festival.

The number 5 is considered unlucky in China, and people believe that natural disasters, poisonous animals, and illness are more prevalent in the 5th month. This may be why the festival falls on the 5th day of the 5th month: to counteract the bad luck and make it as joyous as possible. Many of the foods eaten at the festival also involve the number 5 - like congee (rice porridge) made with five different kinds of bean.

One aspect of the Dragon Boat festival involves hanging flowers, garlic and medicinal herbs on doorways, and even making perfume pouches for children to wear around their necks to banish disease and evil spirits. Other people clean their homes.

However, like any tradition, there are alternative stories. According to historians, the Dragon Boat Festival may have been born from much older traditions: of dragon worship and the winter harvest. Dragon boating does seem like an obvious way to worship dragons! Many different kingdoms and cultures would have celebrated harvest festivals by offering food to gods and spirits. But as trade links and communication between cultures grew, the individual rituals would have grown into a more encompassing festival.

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