The Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, is one of the oldest and most popular traditional Chinese festivals. This year, 2018, it falls on June 18.
Tian Wen or The Heavenly Questions is a piece contained in the classical Chinese poetry collection of Chu Ci, which is an anthology of Chinese poetry from the Warring States period. Tian Wen was the most beloved poem and was written by Qu Yuan. The poem posts 172 questions to Heaven about Chinese mythology and religious beliefs, but the poet does not include the answers.
While Qu Yuan was in exile in 278 B.C., the state of Qin was conquered by the state of Chu. Seeing his beloved country ruined, he was left heartbroken and soon died.
After news of Qu Yuan’s death spread, the people of Chu, who admired Qu Yuan greatly, paddled their boats out and raced to save his body. They raced from Miluo River all the way to Dongting Lake.
The people wished to stop the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body by disturbing the waters with their passage. This is said to be the origin of the yearly dragon boat race.
It is said that the people of Chu started throwing zongzi (glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo) into the water in order to attract the fish so that they would not eat the poet’s body. They also poured a big jar of strong liquor into the water in order to calm the water dragon so that it would not eat his body.
The tradition of making zongzi lasts up to today and has developed into many varieties. Along with rice and eggs, ingredients may include red bean paste, meat, and dates. Nowadays, people in Korea, Japan, and throughout southeastern Asia also enjoy making zongzi.
Traditional Chinese culture puts much emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the body when a person dies. This is vividly depicted in this legend that surrounds the Dragon Boat Festival.