China also celebrated a three-day holiday over the past weekend—a festival commemorating the story of a famous poet.
People in Guangzhou, where I am teaching, packed the route along the tributaries of the Pearl River as more than 100 dragon boats cruised through the city.
When the Zhou king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, the creators of the Terra Cotta warriors in Xi’an, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason.
In exile, Qu became China’s first great poet.
Years later, the Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.
The story goes that local people raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body. Thus, the story of the dragon boats began. When his body could not be found, the locals dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu’s body. Thus began the legacy of zongzi, or sticky rice. Hint: if you have never eaten sticky rice, you take off the leaf and the ribbon.
Smithsonian Magazine provides some great background:
“One of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, the dragon is the controller of the rain, the river, the sea, and all other kinds of water; symbol of divine power and energy…. In the imperial era it was identified as the symbol of imperial power,” writes Deming An, a professor of folklore at the Institute of Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “In people’s imaginations, dragons usually live in water and are the controllers of rain.
“Dragon boat racing is ascribed to organized celebrations of beginning in the 5th or 6th century A.D. But scholars say the boats were first used hundreds of years earlier, perhaps for varied reasons. On the lunar calendar, May is the summer solstice period, the crucial time when rice seedlings were transplanted…. To ensure a good harvest, southern Chinese would have asked the dragons to watch over their crops, says Jessica Anderson Turner, a Handbook of Chinese Mythology contributor. They would have decorated their boats with ornate dragon carvings, “and the rowing was symbolic of the planting of the rice back in the water,” Anderson Turner explains.
The People’s Republic of China did not officially recognize the celebration as a public holiday. But the dragon boat races spread throughout the world. Since 2008, “Duanwu Jie” as it’s known in China, has been celebrated not only as a festival but also as a public holiday. It’s a whole lotta fun!