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【Learn Chinese】The Origins of the Dragon Boat Festival
Celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节), also known as the Duanwu Festival (端午节), is a beloved holiday across China and Southeast Asia.
It has become an occasion for Chinese-speaking communities around the world to gather in riverside parks, enjoy dragon boat races, and snack on zongzi.
The Origins of the Dragon Boat Festival
There are multiple origin stories for the Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节; lóng zhōu jié), but the most common one revolves around the suicide of famed poet and statesman Qu Yuan (屈原; qū yuán).
During the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), seven individual kingdoms—Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin—fiercely contended for land and hegemony.
From the relative security of the state of Chu, the scholar-official Qu Yuan watched with growing concern as the Qi military invaded and conquered the five other states one by one. Fearful that Chu would be next, Qu advised his king to ally with the remaining free kingdoms in order to save the Chu people.
Unfortunately, corrupt court officials were more persuasive in their arguments, and Qu’s wise advice, which later proved prophetic, went unheeded and ignored.
Qu was later exiled by the king, and the state of Chu eventually fell into the Qi army. When Qu got word of the defeat, he was overcome with despair and threw himself into the Miluo River in northeastern Hunan.
The legend goes that local fishermen, who had witnessed Qu jump into the water, rushed to their boats and raced out to save him, but they were too late.
In the following days and weeks, villagers began throwing sticky rice dumplings (zongzi) into the river to prevent fish from feeding on the poet’s remains. They also beat drums and struck the water with paddles to scare away evil spirits.
Throughout the years, these traditions continued and came to commemorate one of China’s finest poets and most loyal patriots.
Today, despite its rather dark (and tragic!) past, the Dragon Boat Festival is a happy occasion that brings together communities and celebrates Chinese culture and camaraderie.