Dragon Boat History
There are many versions of the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival. The most prevalent one is that it is a festival that commemorates Qu Yuan. This version is accepted by most Chinese.
Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC) was a dafu (senior state official in feudal China) in the state of Chu in the Warring States Period. Among the seven states then, (Qi, Chu, Uan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin), Qin was the most powerful one and it intended to conquer the other six and dominate the world. Qu’s capability won the recognition of Chu Huaiwang (Huai King of Chu). However, Qu’s opinion that Chu should carry out a political reform and cooperate with the other states to fight against Qin met opposition from his fellow officials. They spoke ill of Qu before Huaiwang, and as a result, Huaiwang gradually became estranged from Qu, finally he drive Qu out of the capital of Chu. Chu was defeated by Qin. Grieved and indignant, Qu Yuan jumped into Miluo River and ended his life. That day was the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 278 BC.
When people learned that Qu Yuan had drowned, they were very sad. They rowed out on the river to get his dead body but failed. To save the body from being eaten by fish, people threw food into the river to distract their attention. From then on, people always row dragon boats on rivers to mourn over Qu Yuan on the fifth day of the of the fifth lunar month every year. Moreover, they fill bamboo cans with rice and throw them into rivers as a memorial ceremony. It was said that once someone met Qu Yuan by the river and Qu said, “The food you gave me has been robbed by the dragon. You’d better wrap the rice with bamboo or reed leaves and fasten it with colored threads, for these things are what dragons are most afraid of.” Since then, people began to commemorate Qu Yuan with Zongzi which are made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, and thus zongzi became the traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The second legend of the Dragon Boat Festival is related to a historical figure: Wu Zixu. Wu (?- 484 BC) was from the state of Chu in the Warring States Period. After his father and brothers were killed by the King of Chu, he sought refuge in the state of Wu and helped it fight all the way to the city of Ying, the capital of Chu. Later the state of Wu got involved in a war with Yue. Wu Zixu advised the king of Wu not to compromise with Yue, but the king believed false accusations about Wu Zixu and gave him a sword to commit suicide. Wu said, “After my death, please dig out my eyes and hang them on the eastern door of the capital of Wu so that I can see Yue’s army march into Wu’s land and conquer it. Then he killed himself. The King of Wu was irritated by these words. He issued an order to put Wu Zixu’s body in a leather bag and threw it into the river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Therefore, the Dragon Boat Festival is also considered a commemoration of Wu Zixu.
A third version of the origin of Dragon Boat Festival is said to honor Cao E, a filial daughter in Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Cao’s father drowned in the river and the body could not be found for days. The 14-year-old Cao E cried day and night by the river and finally jumped into it on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Five days later, she returned with her father’s body. To commemorate Cao E’s filial behavior, people built a “Cao E Temple” at the place where she jumped into the river. In addition, the village where she lived was rechristened as “Cao E Village” and the river she jumped in was named “Cao E River”.
Dragon-Boat racing is an aquatic athletic sport which has had a long history in China. In some areas it is called “rowing Dragon Boat” or “Dragon-Boat competition”. The custom of Dragon-Boat competition in the Dragon Boat Festival prevails in the southern part of the drainage of the Yangtze River and dates from the 29th year of Qianlong’s rule in the Qing Dynasty (1736).
- Edited and extracted from Wei Liming: “Chinese Festivals – Traditions, Customs and Rituals” translated by Yue Liwen and Tao Lang, Wu Zhou Communications Press, Beijing, China, 2005.
History of Dragon Boating Provided By: Dr. Yaw Chin Ho Professor Emeritus, Department of Information Systems and Decision Science Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Far Eastern Initiative Auburn University Montgomery