Legend Behind the Dragon Boat Race Festival
The festival originates with a poet named Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan was also a minister and councilor to the King of the providence Chu during the period of the warring states. It was believed that he gave advise to the king which was not accepted and as a consequence, the king sent him into exile. Qu Yuan was devastated by this action and in deep sorrow, he threw himself into the Milo River. The citizens of Chu who loved Qu Yuan were devastated. They didn’t want the “water dragons” and fish to eat his body so they would row around the river in their fishing boats, beat drums and splash the oars on the water so that they would scare off the “water dragons”.
They also thought that by throwing rice dumplings into the river Qu Yuan would not be starved and come back as a hungry ghost. So until this day, the Chinese still observe the day and eat rice dumplings and dragon boat rowing has become a tradition.
Ms. Yong said, I first heard this version of the myth whilst in Hong Kong when I first moved there in 1980. I knew there was a story behind eating the dumplings when I was a child [in Malaysia] since we practiced it but fully found out the reason behind it later. It is usually observed in June and I personally don’t put as much importance on this day as New Year. Ms. Yong was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her parents were Chinese, however, which is probably why she knew of this festival.
This legend exemplifies the how folklore can travel over time throughout the world and create different versions. What started off as a local mainland Chinese tradition has now become a popular festival, celebrated all over Southeast Asia as well as in western countries including the United States. Though the story behind the festival remains fairly unchanged, the actual elements of the festivals have evolved to become a much more elaborate celebration. Fierce competition drives athlete to compete in dragon boat races with the revered title of winner at stake. Months of preparation go into training for the event in addition to decorating the boat. The food has also been modified; traditionally, bamboo leaves filled with rice was thrown into the river. Now it has turned into dumpling and tzungtu eating without necessarily throwing the food into the river. According to one source, the festival has also taken on various meanings. The celebration’s is a time for protection from evil and disease for the rest of the year. It is done so by different practices such as hanging healthy herbs on the front door, drinking nutritious concoctions, and displaying portraits of evil’s nemesis, Chung Kuei. If one manages to stand an egg on it’s end at exactly 12:00 noon, the following year will be a lucky one. The festival is also called Double Fifth Day, in reference to it falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
The importance of the dragon in Chinese culture should be mentioned. It is one of the few animals that have been part of Chinese mythology since the beginning and have continued to influence its culture. The dragons characteristics include power and excellence, valiancy and boldness, heroism and perseverance, nobility and divinity. They are also considered the essence of life, the representative of Mother Nature, and the symbol or protection and vigilance. Dragons were common in ancient mythology, typically holding powerful positions such as advisors to the king. In some stories, they even mated with both males and females to create great rulers. Anything related to dragons, including being born in the year of the dragon, is considered extremely lucky and blessed. Chinese worship the dragon so much they even refer to themselves as “Lung Tik Chuan Ren”, or Descendents of the Dragon. The dragon may be popular in this tradition because its protective and intimidating nature will scare off evil spirits and marine creatures.
Owen, Giddens, and Sandra Giddens. Chinese Mythology. The Rosen Publishing Group 2006. 53.