19 Jun 2007

Duan Wu: Dragon Boat Festival

Today is Duan Wu(端午), a day we Chinese commemorate the poet Qu Yuan(屈原)(ca. 340 BC - 278 BC). Being a patriot to his country but being banished, he drowned himself in Milou River(汨羅江)in the Warring States Period(戰國時代)(5th century BC - 3rd century BC).

Our traditional views hold that people were afraid of his body being eaten by the fish in the river, so they rowed narrow boats to scare the fish away and threw food to the river. This tradition of rowing narrow boats could be the origin of the dragon boat festival. In the meantime, Zongzi(粽子), steamed rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, should come from the tradition of preparing food to feed the fish. Slowly, functions of both traditions are transformed and become more delicate now.

There is another tradition we keep in Duan Wu. According to the studies of the ancient Chinese on time and seasons, Duan Wu is the time when the weather starts to get hot and humid, and we should all be careful of different kinds of illness that hot summer days will bring us. In order to stay healthy in the summer time, we should hang herbs on our front door and drink Regular Wine to keep illness away. This tradition has its practical consideration due to the lack of medication in the old days. However, it has become a tradition that only has its symbolic meanings left.

The wine drinking tradition was used by the Ming Dynasty writer Feng Menglong(馮夢龍)(1574 - 1645) in his book Jing Shi Tong Yan(警世通言). Chapter 28 is a tale about Madame White Snake, and it described how Madame White Snake was forced to become what she truly is, a huge white snake, when she accidentally drank Regular Wine on Duan Wu. The author's choice of Duan Wu and Regular Wine as the background of the story reflects the traditions we keep on Duan Wu. The combination of Duan Wu traditions and the tale gives this old festival new flavours, and new flavours are what is needed for an old festival to survive.

This is the power of culture. It transforms something that is simple to be something that is highly complicated but joyful and meaningful. We Chinese should be proud of our Duan Wu festival. This festival has incorporated ancient knowledge and inherited cultural significance. It is a product we unconsciously produce, but we appreciate it consciously and deliberately we strive to make it more refined and enjoyable.

It is quite ridiculous when I heard about South Korea's decision to list Dragon Boat Festival as their country's heritage in 2005. It is true that they also celebrate this festival, but don't forget that their celebration of this festival is the result of the influence of the Chinese culture. I believe most Koreans would disagree with my statement here. However, we cannot be so ignorant and disregard all historic and historical facts.

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