Dragon Boat Festival

The dragon boat race in China originated as a commemoration of a beloved Chinese figure, Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan was a great statesman and poet in the Warring States Era (480-221 BC) in Chinese history. He was born in circa 332 BC, a distant relative of an aristocratic family of the State of Chu. Growing up poor, he saw firsthand the difficult lives that ordinary people led and developed a deep sympathy and love for them, along with a passion for truth and justice for all. These abiding qualities pervaded his poetry/writings and became his guiding principles as he began government service.

Qu Yuan had a brilliant career in the court of the king of the Chu State. Fully trusted by the king, he served as king’s chief assistant. He carried out political reforms, set up a strict legal system, and gave full opportunity to those who were capable. Unfortunately his comet-like success incurred the jealousy of his fellow ministers, who slandered and plotted against him with the help of the ruler of the neighboring State of Qin who eventually became the first emperor of all of China and started building the Great Wall. Misled by all the unfounded allegations, the king banished Qu Yuan from court and exiled him to the countryside. By the next year, however, relations between the two states of Qin and Chu worsened, Qu Yuan was called back and named prime minister, but the clique continued its machinations against him. Qu Yuan objected to the use of force, but without effect; and in 303 B.C. he was banished again, and never returned to power.

Grieving for the deteriorating conditions of his homeland, Qu Yuen wandered for years through the countryside, principally in the region of northern Hunan Province (about central China today), collecting legends and rearranging the folk odes. During this time he also poured out his feelings of grief and concern for his state in the allegorical Li Sao, a long autobiographical poem in which he told of his political ideal and the corruption and mismanagement of the court.

Here is an excerpt from Li Sao, as translated by David Hawkes:

Many a heavy sigh I heaved in my despair,
Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time,
I plucked soft lotus petals to wipe my welling tears,
That fell down in rivers and wet my coat front.
I knelt on my outspread skirts and poured my plaint out,
And the righteousness within me was clearly manifest.
I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix-figured car
And waited for the wind to come, to soar up on my journey.

As the first known great poet in China, Qu Yuan has been called the father of Chinese poetry. His poems, which are filled with life, started the growth of Chinese poetry and have exerted a lasting influence on the development of Chinese literature. He is remembered for both his love of his people and his loyalty to his country.

In the meantime, the king of Chu, now with no wise counsel at court, foolishly decided to travel to the state of Qin for a conference, despite the common sense saying:’never deliver a sheep into the tiger’s mouth.’ There he was held captive by the Qin army and died three years later. His son, the new king, was not able to stop the onslaught of the Qin Army. In 278 BC the Qin Army captured and plundered the capital of Chu state. Qu Yuan was grief stricken by the news. To hear of the fall of his country was the last blow to his patriotic hope. In sorrow he tied a big rock to himself and jumped into the Milo River in Hunan province.

Upon hearing the news, the local people, who revered him for his integrity and nobleness, rushed out in their boats to try and save him, but failed to find his body. To prevent his body from being eaten by fish they beat their drums and churned the waters furiously with their paddles, all the while throwing zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in silk, into the river, as a sacrifice to his spirit or as in inducement to the fish to eat these instead of Qu Yuan’s body.
In memory of this great patriotic poet, this rescue attempt was repeated every year on the anniversary of his death — the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Over the centuries this re-enactment has evolved into a boat race with fanciful boat decorations and elaborate ceremonies. In time, the dragon motif was added and became a dominant feature. The zongzi, glutinous rice balls now wrapped in bamboo leaves, are eaten rather than being thrown into the water. Soon many restaurants began offering these rice balls, particularly during dim sum lunches. You will find this practice being carried on in Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities. The dragon boat race and festival was thus born. 24 centuries later after its beginning, it has remained one of the most important festivals in China. It has the dual purpose of honoring the memories of a patriotic poet and reminding the Chinese people that dictatorships have brought on numerous disasters in China and must not be allowed to happen again.

This story and tradition have captured the imagination of people all over Asia and the dragon boat race has spread to many countries. In recent years this tradition has been taken up by Asian communities in the United States, including the Twin Cities. Now it is estimated that over 50 million people participate annually in such events worldwide. The majority of such races are held in China and other parts of Asia, and over 150,000 participants race in Europe, and over 50,000 in North America

Following age-old traditions, new dragon boats are “given life” by a Taoist priest. He holds a bell in one hand, and with a sword in the other, plunges it into a Fu Zhou (a paper charm with “magic characters” inscribed on it). He then touches the dragon’s head, tail, and the great drum with his sword, while paper money is burned and sand is sprinkled on the head of the Dragon. A leader of the community will then ‘dot’ the eyes of the dragon, a tradition in China that a dragon is asleep until his eyes are ‘dotted.’ The Dragon has now been awakened!

Such ceremonies are intended to frighten away the evil spirits, to bless the boats, and to give them the strength and ferocity of the Dragon – preparing them for the races. And they certainly look like dragons, with a dragon’s head on the bow, and a tail at the stern. Not much has changed over the years, in the colorful and pageantry-filled festivals in which the races now occur.

Annual Dragon Boat Festivals and Races are now held in many of the major cities in the U.S.