Duanwu Festival:five-color threads,dispelling evil

By By Feng Daimei / 08-02-2013 / (csstoday.net)



Duanwu Festival         



“In the fifth month, the fifth day is Duanwujie,

From the doorsill the wormwood scent wafts through the house;

Fresh steamed zongzi taste best with a sprinkle of sugar;

Churning water, the Dragon boats gleam with joy.”


Duanwu Festival, also called Dragon Boat Festival, is one of China’s most significant traditional festivals. The festival occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, so it is also referred to as the “Double Fifth”. In September 2009, UNESCO included Duanwu Festival in the list of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage, making in the first Chinese holiday to be selected for such a distinction.


Today, the festival is practically synonymous with racing dragon boats and eating zongzi, glutinous rice mixed with other fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves, reeds or other large flat leaves. However, many customs tracing roots to ancient practices are associated with Duanwu festival. In fact, dragon boat racing was traditionally much more prevalent in the southern areas of China. In the northern areas during ancient times, most Duanwu traditions related to five (wu): hanging “wuduan”(five plants)—calamus (a genus of rattan palms), wormwood, garlic cloves, banyan branches and pomegranates; eating “wuhuang” ( five yellows)—small yellow fish, cucumber, egg yolk, soybeans, realgar wine (wine sprinkled with the mineral realgar, believed to bring health), all of which share the character “huang” in their Chinese names; eating “wudu” (five toxics) pancakes, which are stamped with the molds of fix toxic creatures—scorpions, centipedes, spiders, toads and snakes; and wearing “five-color thread” and “five-color sachets”.


As early as in the pre-Qin period (2100 B. C.-221 B.C.), The fifth month and in particular the fifth day were considered ominous—because the seasonal change from spring to summer, the heat and humidity facilitated the spread of disease, so celebrations centered around practices to bolster health and ward off sickness and evil.


With the development of history and culture, people in different regions attached different stories to the origins of Duanwu Fesitival. Most of them promote either loyalty or filial piety. By far the most popular story is about Qu Yuan, a senior official and poet in the Kingdom of Chu during the Warring States period. Qu, a descendant of the royal house of Chu, strongly opposed his state’s alliance with the Kingdom of Qin, for which he was exiled. When Qin captured the capital of Chu 28 years later, it is said that Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. It is said racing dragon boats and tossing zongzi into the water is for commemorating him.


In Jiangsu and Zhejiang, people attribute the holiday to the faithful official Wu Zixu, who is honored for his forced suicide, similarly for advising King Fuchai of Wu kingdom to keep alert with Yue. Wu Zixu’s body was purportedly thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. In Northeastern Zhejiang, it is said that Duanwu is celebrated to commemorate Cao E and her immense filial piety: after searching for her drowned father for three days, she was found with him, dead in the river five days later.


Some claimed that holiday traces roots back to the belief of dragon totem in Wu and Yue kingdoms (current Jiangsu and Zhejiang area). It is why large ceremonies of dragon-worship and dragon boat races are held on Duanwu Festival in southern area of China.  

Liu Delong, vice president of the China Folklore Society, commented the evidence connecting Duanwu customs to dragon worship is shaky at best—simply pointing to the name “dragon boat” is insufficient to establish a convincing theory. Liu supports the idea that, as it is popularly participated in and understood now, Duanwu is something of a “syncretic” holiday, the various stories of commemoration having been added overtop an earlier holiday as the tradition was handed down. He sees the hypothesis that Duanwu initially began as a pre-Qin holiday custom of preventing disease and dispelling evil, balancing yin and yang, engendering good health, etc. as the most likely explanation.


Yet another name for Duanwu Festival is Girls’ Day. Traditionally, women used five-color thread tying on girls’ wrists and ankles. These were named as “long life thread”.  Women also embroidered designs of the “five toxics” (scorpions, centipedes, spiders, toads and snakes), and a protective tiger on children’s aprons, while girls used petals from impatiens to paint their nails.  


(The article is compiled based on various resources)