Many cities in North America celebrate the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, or the Tuen Ng Festival, as it’s known in Cantonese. My former Canadian city held dragon boat races each June, in which drunken and out-of-shape businessmen raced big boats on a local river. None of them knew what the races represented, except a reason to be publicly intoxicated, and risk drowning hoping to win a trophy.
Like most folk festivals, the roots of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival are not particularly pleasant. In the days of yor (or China’s Warring States Period), lived Qu Yuan, a government minister with the Chu regime. He was a good man that wanted to maintain Chu’s sovereignty in the face of the Qin dynasty’s advances (Did you see Hero, with Jet Li? Same time period.)
Qu Yuan was cast out of court by jealous and corrupt ministers. Depressed by thinking about the future, he wandered the countryside composing poems from folktales. His works are still considered classics in Chinese literature.
After the Chu capital was captured by Qin forces in 278 BC, Qu Yuan grabbed a rock and walked into a local river to commit suicide, a protest against the excesses and corruption of the new Qin Kingdom.
There a few different stories as to what happened next.
The more heroic version has local villagers racing across the river in their boats, attempting to rescue Qu Yuan. Today’s dragon boat races commemorate the villagers efforts to save the poet.
In an alternate version, the villagers take to their boats, bang drums and throw food into the water to keep the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. The zongzi, a reed-wrapped rice dumpling, was the food used to prevent aquatic creatures from consuming Qu Yuan’s remains. Zongzi, the traditional festival food, is eaten each year during the celebrations.
Of course, just like Christian holidays (Christmas and Easter’s pagan roots), there is yet a third explanation. Scholars have discovered other festivals in China, celebrating the harvest of winter wheat, held about the same time each year as Qu Yuan’s protest. These agrarian festivals were held in areas that knew nothing of Qu Yuan or his final swim. Researchers speculate that harvest festivals and Qu Yuan’s legacy merged.
This historic day was made a national holiday a 2008 government revamp of holidays. International Labor Day (May 1) used to be a three day holiday, which was usually extended to five days to stimulate tourism. It was a dandy break, exactly half-way through the school term. This was nixed, and three long weekends, one in April, May, and June were substituted. It’s a lot like Canada and her summer long weekends.
I’m always happy to have a day off, especially when it involves eating dumplings and listening to sad yet heroic old tales.
image from: biografiasyvidas.com
dragonboatimage from: chinatownconnection.com
zongzi image from: china.org.cn