The Duanwu Festival (also known as Dragon Boat Festival or 端午節 in Chinese) is a traditional and statutory holiday associated with Chinese cultures, though it is celebrated in other East Asian and Southeast Asian societies as well. It is a public holiday in Taiwan, where it is known by the Mandarin name Duānwǔ Jié, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau, where it is known by the Cantonese name Tuen Ng Jit. In 2008, the festival was restored in China as an official national holiday. The festival is also celebrated in countries with significant Chinese populations, such as in Singapore and Malaysia. Equivalent and related festivals outside Chinese-speaking societies include the Kodomo no hi in Japan, Dano in Korea, and Tết Đoan Ngọ in Vietnam.
The festival occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunisolar calendar on which the Chinese calendar is based. This is the source of the alternative name of Double Fifth. In 2009 this falls on May 28 and in 2010 on June 16. The focus of the celebrations includes eating zongzi, which are large rice wraps, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats.
In May 2009, the Chinese government nominated the festival for inclusion in UNESCO's global "Intangible Cultural Heritage" list, partly in response to South Korea's successful nomination of the Dano festival in 2005 which China criticised as "cultural robbery".
In English the holiday is referred to as "Dragon Boat Festival", after one of the traditional activities for the holiday. The literal translation of this term into Mandarin Chinese (longzhou jie) could refer to any dragon boating competition. A more accurate literal translation of "Duanwu" might be "Solar Maximus Festival".
The Chinese terms used to refer to the festival, "duan wu" and "duan yang" (both double character expressions), refer to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The character yang signifies the sun, while the character wu refers to the sun's position at the meridian, its highest point in the sky (high noon). (The Mandarin terms Shangwu and Xiawu correspond to the expressions a.m. and p.m. (ante meridian and post meridian) while Zhongwu refers to noon or mid-day.) Duan carries the meaning of supreme .
Whereas the actual winter solstice is determined according to Gregorian calendar reckoning (where months have 30, 31, 28 or, in leap years, 29 days), Duanwu is reckoned in accordance with calendars based on lunar months consisting of 29 or 30 days. For this reason the calendar date for duanwu - the fifth day of the fifth moon, or double fifth - drifts from year to year on the Gregorian (solar) calendar. Leap months are inserted periodically to keep the "year" based on 12 or 13 lunar months of 29 or 30 days in synchrony with the "year" based on 12 months of 28 – 31 days. (Chinese New Year and other traditional holidays also drift, with the exception of the Qingming Festival which is always at the beginning of April. More recent holidays commemorating events of national, historical or political importance, such as China's Double Eighth and Taiwan's Double Tenth and 2-28, are pegged to the Gregorian solar calendar rather than more traditional lunar calendar.
The moon is considered to be at its strongest around the time of summer solstice ("mid-summer" in traditional Japan, but "beginning" of summer elsewhere) when the daylight in the northern hemisphere is the longest. Yang (sun), like long (the dragon of ancient myth), traditionally represents masculine energy, whereas yue (moon), like feng huang (the phoenix or firebird), traditionally represents feminine energy. Summer solstice is considered the peak annual moment of male energy while the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, represents the peak annual moment of feminine energy. The masculine image of the dragon is thus naturally associated with duanwu. (In Japan, the Double Fifth holiday was for centuries known as "boys' day", though the holiday has been known for the past 50 years or so as "children's day.")
In Taoism the familiar Yin-Yang (shadow-light, passive-active) duality seen in the Taiji symbol expresses this traditional view of the duality of natural forces. The idea of opposed, interacting and ideally balanced forces is key in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The use of herbs and plants, realgar wine, mugwort, etc. to ensure balance and promote health during the summer festivities associated with Duanwu reflects these concepts.
The Duanwu Festival is believed to have originated in ancient China. A number of theories exist about its origins as a number of folk traditions and explanatory myths are connected to its observance. Today the best known of these relates to the suicide in 278 BC of Qu Yuan, poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom during the Warring States period.
The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (c. 340 BCE - 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month.
It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw food into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan's body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.
Despite the modern popularity of the Qu Yuan origin theory, in the former territory of the state of Wu the festival commemorated Wu Zixu (526 BCE - 484 BCE). Like Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu was a loyal advisor whose advice was ignored by the king to the detriment of the kingdom. Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide by the king Fuchai, with his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. After his death, Wu Zixu was revered as a river god. In places such as Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, Wu Zixu is remembered during the Duanwu Festival to this day.
Some modern researchers suggest that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed on a pre-existing holiday tradition. The promotion of these stories over the earlier lore of the holiday seems to have been encouraged by Confucian scholars seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence at a time when Buddhism, a foreign belief system, was gaining influence in China. The Records of the Grand Historian of that era relate to this.
Many traditional rituals of the Duanwu Festival emphasize the avoidance of disease. The desire to prevent health hazards associated with the mid-summer months may have been the primary original motive behind the holiday.
Another theory, advanced by Wen Yiduo, is that the Duanwu Festival had its origins in dragon worship. Support is drawn from two key traditions of the festival: the tradition of zongzi, or throwing food into the river, and dragon boat racing. The food may have originally represented an offering to the dragon king, while dragon boat racing naturally reflects reverence of the dragon and the active yang energy associated with it. This combines with the tradition of visiting friends and family on boats.
Another suggestion is that the festival celebrates a widespread feature of east Asian agrarian societies: the harvest of winter wheat. Offerings were regularly made to deities and spirits at such times: in the ancient Yue, dragon kings; in the ancient Chu, Qu Yuan; in the ancient Wu, Wu Zixu (as a river god); in ancient Korea, mountain gods. As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.
The festival was long marked as a holiday culturally in China. However, the People's Republic of China government, established in 1949, denied official recognition to traditional holidays such as Duanwu. Beginning in 2005 the government began to plan for the re-adoption of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. In 2008 Duanwu was celebrated as a public holiday in the People's Republic of China for the first time.
Three of the most widespread activities for the Duanwu Festival are eating (and preparing) zongzi, an angular rice ball wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves; drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats.
Other common activities include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging up mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, and wearing perfumed medicine bags. Other traditional activities include a game of making an egg stand at noon, and writing magic spells. All of these activities, together with the drinking of realgar wine, were regarded by the ancients as effective in preventing disease or evil and promoting health and well-being.
In the early years of the Republic of China period, Duanwu was also celebrated as "Poets' Day," due to Qu Yuan's status as China's first poet of well renown. In modern Taiwan, zong zi is no longer thrown into rivers, but people still eat them as a holiday tradition and testament to Qu Yuan's self-determination.
- Decree of the State Council of the People's Republic of China (No.513) 2008. (Index entry, State Council Gazette Issue 2 Serial No. 1253)
- Chinese mark first "official" Qingming
- Double Fifth (Dragon Boat) Festival for the name "Double Fifth"
- Intangible Cultural Heritage
- SCMP. "SCMP." Earthquake and floods make for muted festival. Retrieved on 2008-06-09.
- People's Daily. "Peopledaily." China to revive traditional festivals to boost traditional culture. Retrieved on 2008-06-09.
- Xinhua Net. "Xinhuanet." First day-off for China's Dragon Boat Festival helps revive tradition. Retrieved on 2008-06-09.
- "Dragon Boating Not Just for Asians". AsianWeek. Retrieved on 2008-10-03.
- Dragon Boat Net, about the dragon boat sport and its tradition.
- Dragon Boat Festival on the official Hong Kong tourism website.
- More pictures of Dragon Boat Festival.
- Dragon Boat World International - the world's dragon boat magazine.
- Dragon Boat Festival at The Holiday Spot.com.
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