The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Chongwu Festival（重午节）, Dragon Festival, Zhengyang Festival（正阳节）, Tianzhong Festival（天中节）and so on, originated from the worship of celestial phenomena and evolved from the Dragon sacrifice in ancient times.
It is said that Qu Yuan, a poet of Chu state in the Warring States period, jumped into the Miluo River on May 5 and killed himself. Later, people took the Dragon Boat Festival as a festival to commemorate Qu Yuan. There are also commemorations of Wu Zixu, Cao E and Jie Zitui. Generally speaking, the Dragon Boat Festival originated from the ancient ancestors’ choice of “flying dragon in the sky” auspicious day to worship the Dragon ancestors, pray for blessings and ward off evil spirits, and inject the summer season “disease prevention” fashion. In the northern Central Plain, or Zhongyuan, the Dragon Boat Festival was regarded as an unlucky day, and a saying developed there calling it “the evil moon and the evil day”.
The Dragon Boat Festival is a very popular folk festival in China. It is a traditional custom of the Chinese nation since ancient times. Due to the vast territory and many stories and legends, there are not only many different Festival names, but also different customs in different places.
Dragon Boat Racing is an important activity of the Dragon Boat Festival. It is also a relic of ancient dragon totem worship. According to the first excavation report of Hemudu site, as early as 7000 years ago, the ancient ancestors had made canoes with single wood and rowed with wooden oars. The earliest “Dragon Boat Race” figure in China was found in Jia village, Yunlong Town, Yinzhou District, Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province. Dragon boat was originally a dragon shaped canoe carved on a single canoe, and later developed into a dragon shaped boat made of wood.
Dragon boat has a long history. It is a collective rowing competition, and it is divided into different parts. Before the dragon boat race, a grand sacrificial ceremony is usually held. First, the dragon and the God are invited. Before the Dragon Boat Festival, we should choose an auspicious day to get out of the water. After sacrificing to the gods, we should install the dragon head and dragon tail, and then prepare for the race. Fujian and Taiwan went to Mazu temple to worship. In the past, when people offered sacrifices to the Dragon God, the atmosphere was very serious. They prayed for blessings, good weather, evil spirits, calamities and good luck. In Zigui, the hometown of Qu Yuan in Hubei Province, there is also a ceremony of rowing dragon boats to worship Qu Yuan.
- Artemisia argyi and Acorus calamus
In the Dragon Boat Festival, there are many kinds of flowers and plants that can drive away evil and diseases, which have a long history. The most popular in the Dragon Boat Festival are Artemisia argyi and Acorus calamus. This is because Artemisia (moxa) is an important medicine plant, it can also be made into moxa velvet to treat diseases, moxibustion points, and insect repellent. In May, Artemisia argyi oil is the most abundant, so it has the best effect, and people are competing for it. A few wormwood plants are often hung at the door of the house. Due to the special fragrance of wormwood, people use it to drive away diseases, prevent mosquitoes and ward off evil spirits.
Hanging wormwood and Acorus calamus
Zongzi is a traditional Chinese dish mainly made of glutinous rice and stuffing. It is wrapped with Ruo leaf (or new leaf). It has various shapes, such as sharp angle shape, four angle shape, etc. Zongzi has a long history. It was originally used as a sacrifice to ancestors. After it was introduced into the north, it used millet (produced in the North) to make Zong, which was called “jiaoshu”. Due to the different eating habits of different places, zongzi has formed a north-south flavour. From the taste point of view, there are two kinds of zongzi: salty zongzi and sweet zongzi. The custom of eating rice dumplings during the Dragon Boat Festival has been popular in China for thousands of years. It has become one of the most influential and widespread folk eating customs of the Chinese nation, and has spread to Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian countries.
Washing herbal medicine is one of the customs of the Dragon Boat Festival. It falls in the most effective time of the year for plants, and there is an abundance of natural medicines. Dragon Boat Day herbal lotion can cure skin diseases and remove evil Qi. During the Dragon Boat Festival, many places in China have the custom of boiling the medicine and bathing in herbal water, and the beneficial properties of herbal medicine play a vital role in the culture. Herbal liquid is the Mulan Decoction recorded in ancient books. The extensive written records about the custom of washing herbal liquid can be found in Xia Xiaozheng, the book of rites of the great Dai Dynasty, at the end of the Western Han Dynasty. It mentions an orchid, which is not a regular orchid, but the fragrant orchid of Compositae or herbal medicine. In Volume 22 of Sui Shi Guang Ji “Picking Miscellaneous Drugs” it is quoted: “on May 5, competing to pick miscellaneous drugs can cure all kinds of diseases.” 《岁时广记》卷二十二“采杂药”引《荆楚岁时记》佚文：“五月五日，竞采杂药，可治百病。”This custom still exists today and is widely popular. In Guangdong, children use bitter grass and wheat herbs or flowers such as Artemisia argyi, cattail, Impatiens balsamina, and magnolia to boil and wash in water, while men go to rivers and seaside to take a shower – a custom called washing dragon boat water to wash away bad luck and bring good luck. In Hunan, Guangxi and other places, they use Baiye, dafenggen, wormwood, Acorus calamus, peach leaves, etc. to make medicinal liquid for bathing, no matter men, women, old and young, the whole family.
Wearing sachets is one of the traditional customs of the Dragon Boat Festival. The sachet is usually filled with some Chinese herbal medicines with aroma, which have a variety of purposes, from air fragrance, insect repellent, anti-plague and disease prevention. The sachets are usually filled with spices, wrapped with five colour silk thread, or cotton, and mixed with chuanxiong, Baizhi, paicao, qincao, clove, shanai, Xixin, Gansong, Baizhi, Gancao, realgar powder and other traditional Chinese Medicine powder（川芎、白芷、排草、芩草、丁香、山艾、细辛、甘松、白芷、甘草、雄黄粉）, and then worn on the chest.
Sachets can be of different shapes, and have become a common handicraft. In some cities in southern China, young men and women also use the sachets to express their deep love.
In ancient times, five-colour silk threads were called “bibingza” (避兵缯)and “Zhusuo”(朱索). Tied on the mosquito net and cradle, they are also called Wanzhuan rope and Jiansheng rope. Ying Shao’s “Customs” says: “on May 5, five colored silk was used to tie the arms, named Changming thread, a Xuming thread, a Bibing thread, a wuse thread, a Zhusuo, a Bibing and a ghost, to protect people from disease and plague.”. In ancient China, five colours were revered as auspicious colours. Therefore, in the early morning of the festival, the first thing for adults to do when they get up is to tie five coloured threads on children’s wrists, ankles and necks. Children are forbidden to speak when tying the thread. In the traditional custom, red, green, yellow, white and black thick silk threads are twisted into colourful ropes and tied to children’s arms or necks. Since May 5, they have been tied up until the birthday of qiniangma on Qixi, and then they are burned together with Jinchu. It is also said that on the first rainy day after the Dragon Boat Festival, cutting off the multi-coloured thread and throwing it in the rain means letting the river wash away the pestilence and disease. It is said that it can remove the evil and stir up the disaster, which will bring good luck for a year.
The five colours of the five-colour silk represent the five elements, as well as the five directions. They interact with each other and have the mysterious function of removing evil spirits and welcoming good fortune. Cyan wood represents the East; Red is fire, representing the South; Yellow – soil – represents the Central; White is gold, representing the West; Black is water, representing the North. Marked by animals, green dragon is in the East, rosefinch is in the south, white tiger is in the west, Xuanwu (tortoise and snake) is in the north, and yellow dragon is in the centre. In fact, the symbolic meaning of five-colour silk is far more obvious than its actual function. In baopuzi（《抱朴子》）written by Ge Hong in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, there is also a description of the witchcraft of hanging five colour paper in the mountains to summon the spirits of the five sides. It is likely that the five colours also symbolize the spirits of the five sides to be protected.
Five colour silk is tied on the arm, or it is a tattoo custom. It used to be a popular festival custom to tie arms with five coloured silk threads. After spreading to later generations, it has developed into many kinds of beautiful ornaments, such as longevity wisps, longevity locks, sachets and so on. The production is becoming more and more exquisite, becoming a unique folk art of the Dragon Boat Festival.
Five colour silk thread
This note is just a brief introduction to the profound culture of the Dragon Boat Festival. I hope to have the opportunity to continue to share Chinese traditional culture with you next time.
Author: Wei Tianci
Wei Tianci is a graduate student of Beijing Dance Academy, majoring in Chinese folk dance. She also does Chinese classical dance of Han and Tang dynasty. Now, Wei is one of the artistic Teaching Assistants at Goldsmiths Confucius Institute for Dance and Performance. She hopes to be able to continue exchanging knowledge of the traditional culture of different places with international friends.