The Legend of Duan Wu
端午节的传说（一） -- 纪念爱国诗人屈原
端午节的传说（二） -- 纪念孝女曹娥
端午节的传说（三） -- 古越民族图腾祭
Legend 1 - Commemorating Qu Yuan
Duan Wu Festival is a traditional festival with more than 2000 years of history, originating from the period of the Warring States. Many legends surround this ancient tradition, the most popular being the legend of Qu Yuan.
According to historical records, Qu Yuan was a high ranking official of the state of Chu. He believed in harnessing the right talent to enriching the kingdom while strengthening its military, and seeking an alliance with the state of Qi for a combined resistance effort against the state of Qin. Unfortunately, his initiatives were met with strong opposition from other royal courtiers. Eventually, Qu Yuan was exiled from court after being maligned by corrupt officials and banished to the regions of Huai and Xiang. While in exile, Qu Yuan penned many enduring works expressing his love and patriotism for his country and people, such as Li Sao [The Lament], Tian Wen [Questions for Heaven], Jiu Ge [Nine Songs], which earned him the reputation of a patriotic poet.
In 278 BC, the state of Chu was conquered by the Qin army. Upon learning of his country’s plight, Qu Yuan was overcome with despair. After penning his final work Huai Sha [Embracing Sands] on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Qu Yuan tied himself to a boulder and drowned himself in the Miluo River.
When they heard of Qu Yuan’s death, the people of Chu were filled with sorrow and flocked to Miluo River to mourn his passing. Fishermen paddled their boats out onto the river in attempts to recover his body. One of them threw in rice balls, eggs and other food into the river, hoping that the fish and prawns would eat their fill and not touch Qu Yuan’s body. Many others quickly followed suit. An old doctor even poured realgar wine into the river, hoping to intoxicate the monsters in the river to prevent them from hurting Qu Yuan. Later on, as the people were worried that the river monsters would eat the rice balls, they began wrapping them in soft leaves and tied them up with colourful string, hence resulting in the Zong Zi [Rice Dumpling] of present day.
From then on, dragon boat racing, eating rice dumplings and drinking realgar wine on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month became traditional customs to commemorate Qu Yuan.
Legend 2 - Commemorating Cao E
Duan Wu Festival’s second legend came about in memory of a filial daughter Cao E.
It was said that her father Cao Xu drowned in the river during a sacrificial ceremony for Wu Shen on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, but his body remained missing for many days. Only fourteen at that time, Cao E walked along the river bank day and night, crying as she searched for his body. In the end, she jumped into the river in a final attempt to find her father. Five days later, her body surfaced, holding her father’s body in her arms. The people were astonished and this miracle soon spread far and wide. The local magistrate came to know of her sacrifice and was so moved that he ordered a plaque to be erected in her name and got his student You Dan Chan to write a speech praising her filial piety.
Cao E’s tomb can be found in Zhejiang, Shaoxing. Her commemorative plaque was later said to be written by King Yi of Jing. To commemorate her filial piety, the town she lived in was renamed Cao E Town, the river she died in was renamed Cao E River and a temple was built at the place she jumped into the river.
Legend 3 - Totem Worship by Gu Yue Tribe
During the Neolithic Ages, there was a Gu Yue tribe, who worshipped dragon totems. Living near the water, they used the dragon as their emblem and deemed themselves to be Descendants of Dragons. Believing that dragons are the most powerful of deities, they held elaborate totem worshipping ceremonies annually on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. They placed all kinds of food into bamboo tubes or wrapped them in tree leaves, and threw them into the water as offerings to the dragon gods. They even carved their boats into shapes of dragons and played games and held competitions on the water to the sound of beating drums on the shore.
Till today, the Han Chinese still regard their ancestors to be incarnations of the dragon and call themselves ‘Descendants of the Dragon’. The elaborate totem worship has since evolved to become today’s Duan Wu festival.