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Dragon Boat Festival Customs in Qu Yuan's Hometown

2022-06-02 10:34:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter MENG JIAXIN
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Residents of Zigui County in Hubei Province celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival by taking part in the folk activity of zongzi making. 

The Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is a traditional festival of the Chinese nation. In Zigui County, Hubei Province, the Dragon Boat Festival has long been seen as having equal importance to the Spring Festival. For more than 1,000 years, its festive traditions have included dragon boat racing, triplex celebration (on the fifth, 15th and 25th day of the fifth lunar month), zongzi making, and a poets meeting. Zigui is the hometown of Qu Yuan, a great Chinese poet and politician during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) known for his patriotism and classic poems and verses, and each local custom of Dragon Boat Festival reflects local people’s homage for him. 

Historical records say that the connection between the Dragon Boat Festival and Qu Yuan began after the Six Dynasties period (220-589). In Jingchu Chronological Record we read: “Boat races were held on the fifth day of the fifth month, on the day of Qu Yuan drowning himself in the Miluo River and grieving villagers setting out to recover his body by boats on hearing of his death.” In 820, during the Tang Dynasty, mayor Wang Maoyuan ordered the building of a Qu Yuan Hall in Zigui and wrote a speech to commemorate him. Local residents gathered for dragon boat racing after the hall was completed and it turned into an annual event. 

It is a tradition that the Zigui Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated three times on three days by a host of unique practices. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, people hang calamus and mugwort leaves on the door and drink realgar wine; on the 15th, dragon boat races are held; and on the 25th, it is time for family reunions and friends to get together.

Every year around the Dragon Boat Festival, every household in Zigui hangs mugwort and calamus on their door, as it is said that mugwort can repel insects, and sword-shaped calamus possess the power to ward off evil spirits.

Realgar wine is believed to be useful in driving away negativity, so it is commonplace in Zigui that an elderly family dabs the wine on a child’s ear, nose, forehead, and feet, following a bath soaked with mugwort leaves in a wooden tub, hoping to protect the child from snakes and insects.

In Zigui, zongzi, a pyramid-shaped glutinous rice cake, is an essential food for the Dragon Boat Festival. Unlike those in other places, Zigui’s zongzi must be made into a shape with discernible sharp edges and corners, whose triangular form represents Qu’s upright spirit, and a red date is placed inside the rice, presenting a tribute to Qu’s persistent and lofty patriotism. 

Zigui has a custom of holding a poetry competition in honor of its legendary poet citizen. Local farmers have run poetry societies since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). On Dragon Boat Festival, society members chant Qu Yuan’s masterpieces such as The Lament at Qu Yuan Hall, and write their own poems. Today, there are more than 1,000 members in two dozen poetry societies in Zigui, making it a unique cultural tradition in Qu’s hometown. 

The Zigui Dragon Boat Festival embodies the Chinese people’s respect for their ancestors, the philosophy of harmony between humans and nature, and also the aspiration for a better life. In 2006, “Dragon Boat Festival customs in Qu Yuan’s hometown” were included in the first items of China’s intangible cultural heritage, and in 2009, the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, with Qu Yuan’s hometown Dragon Boat Festival as its main content, was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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