There are several theories on what prompted the Dragon Boat Festival way back in the Warring States Period (475 B.C. – 221 B.C/) in China history, though all theories have the festival occurring on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the date of the original event.
Theories on the origination of the Dragon Boat Festival
One theory says the impetus for the festival was Cao Er, who, having lost her mother at a younger age, became a complete orphan at age 14 when her father drowned. When his body was not found, she threw herself into the same river. When her body was found, she was embracing her father’s.
But the most widespread theory of the festival’s origin centers around Qu Yuan, considered to be China’s first poet. Qu Yuan was a minister in the Chinese state of Chu, one of the states involved in brutal warfare more than 2,000 years ago.
When Chu aligned itself with the Qin state, led by Qin Shihuangdi, Qu Yuan was deemed a traitor and sent into exile, a time when he would write his greatest poetry. Distressed when the Qin defeated Chu, Qu committed suicide by weighting himself down and jumping into the Miluo River in 278 B.C.
Residents jumped into their boats and rushed to save Qu, thus giving rise to the dragon boat races that are popular throughout China and elsewhere in Asia today.
Qin Shihuangdi is famous for his mausoleum
For the record, Qin Shihuangdi went on to unify China and is best known for filling his mausoleum with a terra cotta army, now one of the most visited sites in China in present-day Xi’an.
Qu Yuan’s suicide fostered another tradition still popular in China today, that of eating zongzi on this day. The local people loved Qu Yuan and were afraid the fish would eat his body. They knew fish liked rice, so to prevent this from happening, they tossed grains of cooked rice into the river. They began wrapping the rice in bamboo leaves the following year.
Festival usually takes place in summer
The Dragon Boat Festival is known as Duan Wu, which translates as “double fifth,” the event taking place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The date varies annually, but is most frequently sometime in June, though it can be as early as late May.