Dragons have been a symbol of Chinese culture for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese believed that each river and lake had guardian dragons living in palaces deep in the waters. Dragons were usually well-meaning creatures, protectors of the people. But when they were angry, dragons wreaked havoc. They brought too much rain, with floods and storms, or no rain at all. For this reason, it was important to keep the River Dragon happy. Sacrifices were made to the River Dragon so that it would, in return, bring the right amount of rain.
Since ancient times, Chinese festivals have been celebrated in pursuit of happiness and good health. They were set long ago according to the sowing and reaping of crops. The Dragon Boat Festival occurs when young rice shoots have been planted and the summer rains are about to begin.
To honor the River Dragon, long, narrow boats were built in its image. The dragon head held a prominent position at the bow. It was a ferocious-looking creature with the head of a camel, the horns of a stag, the eyes of a demon, the neck of a snake, and the ears of a cow.
Fierce races were held in the belief that they would bring prosperous and bountiful crops. The competitions became a tradition of the rain-making festival, which took place at the beginning of the summer. Dragon boat races were not connected with the Dragon Boat Festival until the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).
Some people say the Dragon Boat Festival started with the ancient worship of the River Dragon and the dragon boat races. Others believe it began in memory of one of China’s famous poets, Qu Yuan.
The Poet Qu Yuan
Long ago in a time known as the Warring States period, there were seven kingdoms in China, each fighting against the other for supremacy. The largest and most powerful kingdoms were Chu and Qin.
Chu was ruled by a king who surrounded himself with many advisors. Qu Yuan was one of the king’s most trusted and respected counselors. He was highly regarded by the people.
In those turbulent times, court intrigues ran rampant. Corrupt advisors were jealous of Qu Yuan’s favored position with the king. Because he was a man of high moral standing, they could not find a way to discredit him.
Qu Yuan’s position would not last forever. The enemy kingdom of Qin had prepared a peace agreement that Qu Yuan suspected was a trap. Having the best interests of his people at heart, he advised the king against signing it. His recommendation was to be his downfall.
Jealous advisors, eager to rid the court of this popular statesman, accused Qu Yuan of disloyalty and treason. The king of Chu did not listen to Qu Yuan’s wise advice and signed the peace agreement. Moreover, he banished Qu Yuan from the kingdom.
For twenty lonely years, Qu Yuan wandered aimlessly about the countryside. Bearing the burden of his dishonorable exile, he expressed his continued love for his king and people through his poetry.
Qu Yuan lost all hope when he heard the worst news. His beloved kingdom, Chu, was conquered by the brutal Qin army. Qu Yuan, in utter despair, clutched a huge rock to his chest and threw himself into the Mi Luo River. It was the fifth day of the fifth month.
Word of Qu Yuan’s drowning spread quickly. Hundreds of villagers raced out in their boats to try to search for the body of their beloved statesman, but they were too late. They splashed the waters with their paddles and banged loudly on their drums to keep the River Dragon from devouring him. They scattered rice into the river so that Qu Yuan’s spirit would not go hungry.
Bringing Good Fortune
The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar. It is also called the Festival of the Double Fifth and is considered the unluckiest day of the year. The fifth month, occuring in May or June in the western calendar, is considered an evil month that brings misfortune and disease. Five Gods of Plague roam the earth during this month. In ancient times, these were the evil spirits that brought bad luck.
To protect against misfortune, many customs developed and continue today. During the Dragon Boat Festival, families hang garlic or branches of fragrant herbs, such as mugwort or calamus, above their doorways. The mugwort leaf looks like a tiger, the supreme protector against evil spirits. The calamus leaf looks like a demon-killing sword. Realgar, an ancient folk medicine, is burned. Its yellow smoke and noxious smell drive away evil spirits. Realgar is also added to food to ward off disease.
Fragrant pouches, or xiangbao, protect their wearers from illness. Made of colorful cotton or silk and filled with dried flowers and herbs, these are very popular with children, who collect as many as possible. Children also wear bracelets of five-colored threads or five-colored ribbons in their hair. These are called “threads of long life” or “threads for prolonging life.” The five colors each represent the five elements or natural forces: blue for wood, red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal, and black for water.
The five “poisons” also fight bad luck. These creatures are the centipede, lizard, scorpion, snake, and toad. The five poisons are used to decorate clothing, quilts, bags, and even cakes, for protection against their fatal bites.
From the Hardcover edition.