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Poets, Dragons, and Water Demons!

The legends behind the Dragon Boat Festival

Legend surrounds the Dragon Boat Festival. There are stories about water demons, dragons, renegade poets, and men who become gods. Like holidays from all corners of the world—be it Asia, America, Europe, or Africa—the Dragon Boat Festival is made of myth layered on top of myth, stories woven together and made new with each retelling.

Here’s one part of the story, and probably the most well-known: Qu Yuan, a Warring States Period court minister in the state of Chu, was betrayed by corrupt colleagues and forced into exile. He spent his life traveling the countryside, writing poetry and lamenting the corruption of his government. Even in exile, he wrote love-poems to his kingdom, a loyal servant.

In 278 BC, when his capital was captured by the Qin State, the minister-poet was so saddened, that in protest, he waded in the Miluo River and drowned himself. Villagers rushed to the river to save Qu, but it was too late. He was gone. They paddled frantically up and down the river, looking for the righteous poet and throwing rice into the river, hoping that the ravenous water demons would eat the grain, not Qu Yuan’s body.

It is said that Qu Yuan’s spirit reappeared in the middle of the night and thanked the villagers for their efforts. After drowning, Qu had been cornered by a hungry water demon, about to be devoured. The morsels of rice distracted the demon and sated his appetite, a kind of offering. Qu was spared.

In what was once the state of Wu, modern day Suzhou, a slightly different story is told. Wu Zixu was another once-loyal advisor to his king—King Fuchai—who fell out of favor with the ruling power. Wu was forced to commit suicide, impaling himself on a sword, and his body was thrown into a nearby river. But death brought immortality for Wu—he was a righteous man who never swayed from his convictions. Because of this he lived on as a river god.

But the legends may go even deeper. Scholars suspect that this holiday has older, agricultural roots. These statesmen and scholars, as heroic as they may be, are probably relatively new, Confucian additions to an old agricultural, dragon-worshipping holiday. For ancient China, lunar May was a time when winter wheat would have been harvested, and the summer planting began. This was the time to turn to the Dragon God, who controlled the rivers, the sea and the rain. Farmers took some of their wheat and some of their rice, and brought it to the nearby river, making their offering to the mysterious Dragon God. They prostrated themselves at the riverside and prayed for a bountiful year.

Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu’s stories have also become legend, as they too become kinds of revered heroes, occupying a mythological space in this country’s history. They live alongside the Dragon King, swimming together somewhere through the rivers of China.


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