Two things I forgot to mention about Duanwu Festival: first, there is a custom of hanging pictures of the demon quelling spirit Zhong Kui; second, there is a custom of drinking with realgar wine and painting children with the dregs. The story of Zhong Kui is that he was a man who failed his imperial examinations and committed suicide. He subsequently appeared to the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong in a dream, wherein he grabbed a demon who was haunting the emperor’s dream, “gouged out both of his eyes, split him into two [and] ate him up” (China Radio International). He has thus become known as a protector against demons, ghosts, and other malevolent spirits. Deng Ming-Dao writes that “in 1757, people put up Zhong Kui’s picture to counter a plague. They recovered, and from that point on, Zhong Kui was invoked throughout the year for his ability to fight illness and demons” (The Lunar Tao, 136). I already have a picture of Zhong Kui on my door, so I didn’t need to hang a new one up today. The custom of hanging Zhong Kui’s portrait complements the hanging of mugwort, further showing that Duanwu Festival was and is a good day to ward off evil.
The custom of drinking realgar wine and then painting children with the dregs is a little more questionable, as “Realgar is an arsenic sulfide mineral, and source of highly toxic inorganic arsenic.” A study which was published in 2011 found that urine samples of participants in these activities showed dangerously high levels of arsenic:
Drinking wines blended with realgar or using realgar based paints on children does result in the significant absorption of arsenic and therefore presents a potentially serious and currently unquantified health risk. (Abstract)
According to Stone-Network.com, realgar was “used as a medicine in China,” and was also “to be kept near at hand in use, or worn about the person, with a view of warding off disease.” Somehow, I think that while some pathogens might get killed off, the long term health benefits are dubious. I don’t have any realgar wine lying around anyways, but I don’t think that drinking arsenic will be part of my observance of this holiday in the future either.