The Origin of the Duan Wu (Dragon Boat) Festival
Popular legend has it that villagers carried their dumplings and boats to the middle of the river and desperately tried to save a well respected poet, Qu Yuan, from drowning, but were unsuccessful. In order to keep fish and evil spirits away from the poet’s body, they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles. They threw rice into the water as a food offering to Qu Yuan and to distract the fish away from his body. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he had died because of a river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. These packages became a traditional food known as zongzi, although the lumps of rice are now wrapped in reed leaves instead of silk. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat races, which are held on the anniversary of the poet’s death every year.
Today, people still eat zongzi and participate in dragon boat races to commemorate Qu Yuan’s sacrifice at the Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu festival) on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Biography of Qu Yuan
Qu Yuan is generally recognized as the first great Chinese poet. He abandoned the strict four-character verses used in poems of the day and initiated poetry with verses of varying lengths, resulting in more flowing rhythms and greater latitude of expression. Yuan is also regarded as one of the most prominent figures of Romanticism in Chinese literature, and his masterpieces influenced some of the greatest Romantic poets in Tang Dynasty.
Other than his literary influence, Qu Yuan is also regarded as the earliest patriotic poet in Chinese history. The loyalty, and unyielding patriotism expressed in his poems embodied Confucian political ideals, and have served as a model for Chinese intellectuals to this day.