The fifth day of the fifth lunar Month is the date of a traditional Chinese festival—the Dragon Boat Festival. In 2009, UNESCO inscribed the festival on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The celebration held in Zigui, Hubei is the most typical and this is fitting as the festival honors the poet Qu Yuan (353–277 BCE) who was born here. Other noted celebrations of this festival are the Xisai Immortal Boat Festival at Xisai in Huangshi, Hubei; the Miluo River Dragon Boat Festival in Miluo, Hunan; and the Suzhou Dragon Boat Festival in Suzhou, Jiangsu. The first three festivals, which are centered on commemorating Qu Yuan, are inheritance of the ancient Chinese culture of the Chu state; the last was held in memory of the general and statesman Wu Zixu (d. 484 BCE) and shows the continuation of the ancient Chinese culture of the Wu state.
The Dragon Boat Festival dates back more than two-thousand years and over that time a great variety of stories and explanations have arisen to explain it. A brief summary of the explanations shows that there are nine basic theories surrounding the origin and purpose of the festival:
• making sacrificial offerings to a dragon totem;
• commemorating Qu Yuan;
• gathering thoroughwort for bathing;
• commemorating Jie Zitui (d. 636 BCE, who is associated with the Cold Food Festival);
• commemorating Gou Jian (ca. 520–465 BCE), king of the Yue state, who practiced naval drills;
• commemorating Wu Zixu;
• offering sacrifices to ancestors,
• commemorating the filial Cao E (130–143, who drowned while searching for her father in the river);
• celebrating the summer solstice.
From among all of these, the explanation that has been the most influential is the second theory. Since the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties, it has been universally accepted that the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates Qu Yuan. His feelings for his country and his people, his upright and pure integrity, and his open-minded and romantic poetry have been greatly admired.
There is an extremely rich variety of folk customs associated with the festival. Although the customs vary greatly, there are some that are shared, such as eating zongzi (pyramid-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves), racing dragon boats, and hanging Asiatic wormwood (Artemisia indica willd) on the door. The last of these three is done to ward off evil spirits and stave off disasters. Taken all together, these three festive activities reveal a Chinese festival from three aspects—daily life, societal activity, and religious belief.
Aside from the three commonly practiced folk activities mentioned above, the customs of the Dragon Boat Festival are quite different between northern and southern regions. Different provinces and regions have their unique customs, such as food and drink, clothing accessories, athletic sports, and entertainment.
The Dragon Boat Festival is a folk festival, but it is also a great cultural event and numerous writings associated with it have been passed down through the centuries. Among them are the Chu ci (Verses of Chu). When they first appeared, they were a new literary genre and were typified by the writings of Qu Yuan. They have become one of the wellsprings of Chinese poetry. As the creator of this romantic literature, Qu Yuan’s sentiments guided the direction of Chinese literature for thousands of years.
Most of the poetry and writings about the Dragon Boat Festival set out to cherish the memory of Qu Yuan. He has set an example for the literati of all ages and his unfortunate circumstances have resonated with writers across the centuries. Various literary forms have been used to eulogize him and his inspirational life. Some authors, keeping the poet’s life in mind, have written simply to express their pent-up feelings of sadness. There are other writings that are more about the Dragon Boat Festival itself; they describe the racing in exaggerated terms, whereas others may depict bathing in the thoroughwort-scented water, or record various other practices and customs.