Duanwu Festival

Tomorrow is Duanwu Festival, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Traditions on this holiday include the racing of dragon boats, the making of zongzi (glutinous rice wrapped in leaves), and the hanging of mugwort.

The most common origin story for Duanwu is that it commemorates the suicide of Qu Yuan, a poet and loyal official of the feudal state of Chu. Qu Yuan had opposed his king allying with the state of Qin, and had been banished for doing so. When Chu was conquered by Qin in 257 BCE, Qu Yuan jumped into the Miluo River while clutching a large rock, and drowned.

The people he lived with attempted to rescue him from their boats, thus originating the racing of dragon boats. When their attempts failed, they threw rice into the river so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body–the origin of zongzi. These days, people typically eat the zongzi rather than throwing them into the river. However, the above photograph shows that the latter custom has continued among some people.

Qu Yuan’s suicide is the most common story about Duanwu, but many scholars believe that the festival actually predates the fall of Chu. In his essay Duanwu Festival: National Heritage and Cultural Ownership in East Asia, Roy Eun Seok Park mentions eight different theories on its origin. One, suggested by scholar and poet Wen Yiduo (1899-1946), links Duanwu to dragon worship:

In his article “History Education of Duanwu” (端午的歷史教育), Wén Yīduō (聞一多) argues that Duanwu originated from the ancient ritual of the dragon (龍之節) practiced by Wu people based on their dragon totem. (118)

The throwing of zongzi into the river as a sacrifice to the river god makes sense. Deng Ming-Dao’s Lunar Tao also mentions that “the people beat the water with their paddles to frighten away the water dragons” (151). The story of Qu Yuan has a strong feeling of propitiation, in that the offering of zongzi is meant to divert the attention of the fish/dragons from one who entered their realm.

The custom of hanging mugwort is related, in the story quoted in the previous post, to hiding from the God of Plague. While the antiquity of this custom is unknown, it shares with the story of Qu Yuan a common element of attempting to ward off undesirable events. Park also suggests an agricultural connection:

Duanwu is closely related to the ancient fifth-month rite (五月祭), often found in ancient agricultural societies, of praying for abundance at seed-sowing time. (117)

Park doesn’t elaborate further, but making offerings to dragons (water spirits) would be logically consistent with an agricultural rite. Whether the averting of evil and the propitiation of powers were related to an explicitly agricultural function or not is unknown.

Park’s essay mostly focuses on the controversy that erupted when Korea registered the Dano Festival celebration held in the city of Gangneung as a UNESCO list of intangible heritage. Dano has its distant roots in Duanwu, but contains many local elements these days. Chinese people were angry at the perceived “theft” of one of their traditions.

You can read Park’s essay for more in-depth analysis of the context and aftermath of this dispute. I’ll just quote one insight of Park’s, namely that nationalization and globalization are not polar opposites, as the “national” identity only considers the local customs it has subsumed when it is in turn threatened by a larger version of itself:

Gangneung Dano is nothing but a local festival which has been recently revived and “elaborated upon” through academic research and administrative support, while most Korean people do not celebrate Dano in general.

How and why has a local (Gangneung) festival become a national (Korean) heritage? Ironically enough, it is in the process of globalization – the registration on the UNESCO list – that nationalization of the local culture occurs. (121)

This is all ironic, considering the original story of Qu Yuan is one of imperialism and cultural assimilation as well.

The September 2007 China Heritage Quarterly also published a feature regarding the controversy. That article pointed out some interesting connections between ancient Chu and Gangwon-do, Korea:

What is striking about Gangneung (Chinese: Jiangling) in Gangwon-do prefecture is that the isolated area in which it is located on the eastern coast of Korea has a number of place names borrowed from ancient Chu. Here can be found local renderings of localities in Hunan province, China, such as Dongting Lake (Dungjungchuwal), all associated part of the Duanwu mythology.

There are even further parallels between Chu and Gangwon:

Ancient Chu and the Gangwon region in Korea both have rich traditions of shamanism, and some scholars in China have even argued that Gangwon shamanism came from Chu-Miao traditions, but it would seem to be safer to speak of shamanistic affinities. However, almost all histories of Korean shamanism attribute its origins among various Tungusic peoples of north-eastern Asia.

Make of all this what you will. The festival at Gangneung is rather tangential to what I was actually looking for, but I’ve included it just for general interest.

At any rate, I will hang mugwort, eat zongzi, and also throw zongzi into the river as an offering. I don’t have dragon boats, nor the people to crew them, so unfortunately that won’t be part of my day tomorrow. Here’s a pretty picture of dragon boat racing though:


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