DragonBoatHistory

Dragon Boat Legends & Rituals

Remembering Qu Yuan
   Qu Yuan is one of China's most famous poets, who is supposed to have died by drowning himself in the Miluo river in 278 BC. He had been a high official at the court of the southern state of Chu (in modern Hubei and Hunan provinces), and had seen the danger of an alliance with the tyrranical state of Qin (based in modern Shaanxi province). However, his king listened to corrupt advisors instead, and sent Qu Yuan into exile in the south. There Qu Yuan composed lyric poetry based on local shaman songs. When the court of Chu was destroyed by Qin, the distraught Qu Yuan committed suicide.
   There are many different legends which associate Qu Yuan's with dragon boat racing. The very earliest story, which was first recorded in the early 7th century AD, almost nine hundred years after the poet's death, goes as follows:

   "On the full moon of the fifth lunar month [around mid-summer], Qu Yuan went to the Miluo river {to commit suicide}/ The local people followed him to Dongting Lake but could not find him. The lake was large, their boats were small, and they could not get across. They sang, 'How shall we get across the lake?' Then, drumming their oars, they vied to return, competing to {be first to} assemble at the pavilion. This practeice was handed down, and became the performance of 'competing to cross' (jingdu). Their swift paddles move quickly together, sounds of oar and song echoing across {the water}, the noise shaking water and land, those watching gathered like clouds."

A 20th-century painting of Qu Yuan
  Another story, first recorded around the same time, tries to explain why people throw rice balls stuffed into bamboo or leaf wrappings (called zongzi) into the water at Duanwu, the midsummer festival, traditionally celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, but also celebrated on the full moon of that month.According to this tale, local people made rice offerings to Qu Yuan at the Miluo river for centuries after his death. In the first century AD, however, Qu Yuan's ghost appeared to a local man, who told him that evil water spirits had stolen all the offerings, and recommended that the rice be wrapped in special leaves and five-colored silk, to scare away the spirits. The man did as he was told, and it became the local tradition. A second version of this story, first recorded in the tenth century, gives the credit to Qu Yuan's wife: "She always threw food into the river as an offering. In a dream she was told that the food offerings were all consumed by an evil water spirit. It was afraid of five-colored silk and bamboo, so the wife used bamboo to make zongzi and wrapped them in five-colored silk. Now the custom on this day is for everyone to do this, and there's no more trouble from evil water spirits." Even later versions of this story claim that the boatmen themselves threw rice or other food into the water to feed the fish, so they would not eat Qu Yuan's body. 

In fact, there is no evidence that Qu Yuan died at the time of the Duanwu festival, in mid-summer, nor any evidence that boatmen tried to rescue his body. However, the story was very compelling, and particularly appealed to well-educated men who knew the legends and poems of Qu Yuan well. Since they often were the sponsors of boat races, it became fairly common for elements of Qu Yuan's life story and poetry to be associated with the boats and the races. In some places, especially along the southeast coast (Fujian and Guangdong provinces) and Taiwan, Qu Yuan is worshiped as the "Venerated King of Water Immortals," and dragon boat races were dedicated to him, traditions which survive to this day. 

   In the early 20th century, many Chinese intellectuals were newly attracted to the life and poetry of Qu Yuan, for he represented uncompromising principles, love of country, and a close association with the common people. As a result, he became more strongly associated with dragon boat racing, which was a popular local tradition in southern China, but not part of elite culture. In the early Communist period (the 1950s), Qu Yuan was widely celebrated as one of China's greatest heroes, and dragon boat races were sponsored in his honor.


Driving Away Evil Spirits
   More important than commemorating Qu Yuan is the tradition that dragon boat races drive away evil spirits. Duanwu, the midsummer festival in the fifth lunar month, had since at least 300 BC been a time when evil spirits were believed to run rampant, causing disease and ill fortune. Many methods were developed to drive them away, including hanging up pungent leaves and binding the forearms with five-colored silk. Early jingdu-style boat races were also believed to drive away armies of evil spirits, since they were noisy and disruptive, and showed off the virility and power of local militia troops. So they were commonly held on Duanwu, a time when the rivers ran full and dangerous, and the races were thus especially exciting.

   After the races became associated with imperial dragons, in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD, the dragon boats themselves were also believed to be frightening to evil spirits. In addition, the boats and boat-racing teams were dedicated to powerful local gods who were believed to protect the community from harm. These were often generals from ancient times, who were thought to have become local gods, and were the source of many legends and stories. To the right is an image of Zhong Kui, a popular deity whose image is commonly hung out on Duanwu in order to scare away evil spirits.
 


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