Dozens of historical figures are commemorated on Duanwu Festival, so how exactly did the festival begin?
Today, China celebrates Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival (端午节), with a public holiday, boat races, and mountains of zongzi, a gelatinous rice pyramid. Considered one of China’s “Four Traditional Festivals,” along with the Lunar New Year, Qingming Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival, Duanwu Festival is one of the oldest celebrations on the Chinese calendar. But while the holiday is now about water sports and eating, historically it was an occasion for sacrifice rituals, and a time for solemn remembrance rather than play.
The most widely known origin story of the festival is that it commemorates the death of Qu Yuan (屈原) in the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE), who drowned himself in the Miluo River after he was exiled and his home state Chu was captured by the State of Qin. Local people apparently threw sticky rice into the river hoping that the fish would eat the grain instead of Qu Yuan’s body, leading to the invention of zongzi.
But this story is disputed, and many other tales, regions, and people claim to represent the heart of this day of commemoration. Wen Yiduo (闻一多), a scholar and poet in the early 20th century, pointed out in his essay “An Exploration into Duan Wu” that the festival most likely predates Qu Yuan’s demise by centuries, and probably emerged much earlier as a festival to worship dragons, still a traditional symbol of power and wisdom in China today.