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Duanwu Festival reveals connections across cultures

REN GUANHONG | 2022-06-02 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

In Guangzhou, south China’s Guangdong Province, people prepare for upcoming dragon boat races for the Duanwu Festival. Photo: CFP

In history, with the huge cultural influence of China, the Duanwu (端午) Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, was gradually introduced from China to neighboring countries, integrated with the local cultures of these countries, and resulted in rich and colorful folk cultures. Today, the Duanwu Festival is still celebrated in countries with significant Chinese descendants, such as in Singapore and Malaysia, and regions influenced by traditional Chinese culture, like Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and Vietnam.

Origins in China
The Duanwu Festival originated in the pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BCE) in China. The ancient Chinese believed that every day was a process of constant changes of yin and yang, and the days around the Duanwu Festival were the time when yin and yang fought against each other. In ancient China, the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar was considered an inauspicious month and the fifth day of the month a particularly bad day, as seasonal change caused increasing heat and humidity, which facilitated the spread of diseases. Therefore, celebrations were centered around practices to ward off sickness and misfortune. Most of the herbs used during the Duanwu Festival are aromatic, which are regarded as a symbol of medicinal function. The most popular herbs for the festival are mugwort and calamus. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), people have had the tradition of using medicinal herbs to prevent diseases on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Various festive customs were passed down through the ages, including bathing in water boiled with aromatic herbs, hanging mugwort on doors, drinking realgar wine [the ancient Chinese believed realgar was an antidote to poisons], and wearing a sachet stuffed with medicinal herbs. 
It is said that Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE), a great patriotic poet who lived during the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Therefore, his story was also connected with the Duanwu Festival, and more festive activities were developed to commemorate Qu Yuan, such as dragon boat racing, which is believed to originate from people’s attempt at finding his body, and eating zongzi, a practice originating from people dropping balls of sticky rice into the Miluo River so that fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan’s body.
Shared lunar calendar 
The date of the Duanwu Festival in China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula are basically the same, because the traditional calendars used in Japan and the Korean Peninsula in the past were derived from China. Liu Xiaofeng, a professor from the Department of History at Tsinghua University, pointed out that between 109 and 108 BCE, the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) defeated Wiman Joseon and installed four commanderies in the northern Korean Peninsula. It was then the traditional Chinese calendar introduced into the Korean Peninsula [which was gradually evolved into the Korean calendar, a variant of the Chinese calendar]. In 2011, an ancient sword bearing Chinese characters was unearthed in Fukuoka, Japan. These characters indicate that the sword was made in the year of “庚寅”, which corresponds to the year 570 on the Gregorian calendar. The inscriptions were based on the Genka calendar, which was made in China during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), and imported from Paekche [located in the southwest of the Korean Peninsula between 18 BCE and 660 CE] into Japan. 
Dano [the Duanwu Festival in Korea] falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar Korean calendar in the Korean Peninsula. In Japan, the day was originally called “Tango no sekku” (端午の節句), and was celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth moon in the Chinese calendar adopted in Japan. After Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873 due to reforms after the Meiji Restoration, the date was moved to May 5. The long-term sharing of the traditional calendar system means that people in China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula used to arrange their daily lives and agricultural production based on the same calendar system. In this sense, the significance of the Duanwu Festival lies in seasonal change. Therefore, the belief of using herbs to keep evil spirits and disease away laid the foundation for customs of the Duanwu Festival in China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula.
The ancient Chinese believed that the Duanwu Festival was the most suitable time for producing medicine. In ancient Chinese pharmacological books, collecting herbs or producing medicine on the Duanwu Festival was developed into a tradition very early. This idea was also adopted by people in Japan and the Korean Peninsula. According to the Chronicles of Japan, in 611, the court held a “medicine hunt,” to go out to collect herbs, generally including mugwort and calamus. The Record of the Seasonal Customs of Korea, written by the Korean scholar Sŏng-mo Hong in 1849, records that on the day of Dano, royal physicians would serve the royal families a soup made from materials such as black plum and white sandalwood, which was good for digestion and heat stroke prevention.
The tradition of purifying the body and mind by bathing during the Duanwu Festival does not only exist in China. The Japanese tradition of  shobuyu (soaking in a bath with sweet flag leaves) on May 5 has a long history. In the Korean Peninsula, there was once a tradition of women washing their hair with calamus-infused water on the day of Dano.
There are many unique festive customs in Japan and the Korean Peninsula under the influence of local cultures. In Japan, the Duanwu Festival usually occurs prior to rice transplanting, and there have been some traditional rituals since ancient times. Japanese folk culture experts believe that the Duanwu Festival was integrated with the ancient Japanese traditions of fasting and purification. In some places in Japan, unmarried girls tasked with planting rice in paddies, known as saotome, would bathe in water with sweet flag for purification for the upcoming rice planting season. These rituals are performed in a separate hut (with calamus, mugwort, etc. on the roof), in order to pray for a good harvest.
In Japan, sweet flag is the most popular herb used on May 5. It is said that such customs in Japan can be traced back to the Nara period (710–794) and the Heian period (794–1185), and later became popular among commoners. Probably since the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the fifth day of the fifth lunar month has been regarded as “Tango,” or “Boys’ Festival.” Some believe that the reason for this change is that in Japanese, the pronunciation of “菖蒲” (shobu, sweet flag) is the same as “尚武” (martial spirits). On this day, families raise the koinobori [the carp-shaped windsocks originated from the Chinese legend of a golden koi fish that swam up a waterfall at the end of the Yellow River and became a dragon] for each child, and display traditional Japanese military helmets and samurai dolls, due to their tradition as being symbols of strength and vitality. The idea that calamus can repel evil spirits due to its sword-shaped leaves can be found both in China and Japan, but it is a Japanese innovation highlighting martial arts and expectations for boys on that day.
In the Korean Peninsula, there has been a tradition of worshiping mountain deities and earth deities since ancient times. Local ceremonies to drive away evil spirits and pray for a good harvest add a unique flavor to the day of Dano. The famous Gangneung Danoje Festival, which culminates on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, takes place in the town of Gangneung and its surroundings on the Korean Peninsula. The festival includes a shamanistic ritual on the Daegwallyeong Ridge, which pays tribute to the mountain deities and male and female tutelary deities. It encompasses traditional music and Odokddegi folk songs, the Gwanno mask drama, oral narrative poetry, and various popular pastimes. The Gangneung Danoje Festival is a unique traditional festival in Korea, preserving the ancient form of the Korean shamanistic rituals.
Shared cultural elements
Commemorating Qu Yuan is another important cultural element of China’s Duanwu Festival. Qu Yuan’s loyalty and patriotism have received high regard from Confucians. With the introduction of Confucian thought from China to Japan and other Asian countries, this cultural element was also exported from China.
In 本朝月令 [a Japanese record of annual events and their origins, written in the 10th century], the author explained of the Duanwu Festival that Qu Yuan was exiled to the south of present-day Hunan Province in China, and committed suicide by wading into the Miluo River. His soul turned into a deity, which could bring droughts, floods and epidemics to the world. He told people in a dream that all the disasters and diseases were caused by his spiritual energy. The way to eliminate the disasters was to pay homage to him by the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This is the Japanese version of the legend of Qu Yuan. Although it is somewhat different from the Chinese version, it indicates that the relationship between the Duanwu Festival and Qu Yuan has been accepted by the Japanese. In Seoul and History, the Korean author Mae-sun Kim also mentioned that people dropped rice in water on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to commemorate Qu Yuan. He said that he was deeply moved as Qu Yuan’s hometown is far away from the Korean Peninsula, and it has been thousands of years since Qu Yuan’s death, but the customs of commemorating him have not changed.
The waves of Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia have also brought the Duanwu Festival there. As Southeast Asia is located in the tropics, the climate in the fifth lunar month is different from that of China. Therefore, the customs of the Duanwu Festival under China’s seasonal change gradually disappeared in Southeast Asia. Su Qinghua, former director of the Department of Chinese Studies at Universiti Malaya in Malaysia, noted that in the Duanwu Festival, hanging mugwort on the doorframe and sprinkling calamus-infused water indoors and in courtyards were occasionally seen in Malaysia, but people didn’t know the point of doing these things. They just followed the customs. Therefore, these old customs have gradually been forgotten, and replaced by the custom of dragon boat racing and making zongzi, which is said to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan.
When talking about the differences and similarities between Chinese and other countries’ ways of celebrating traditional festivals such as Duanwu, a history of how these countries were deeply connected with each other can be recalled. The connection between these nations will endure the test of time, since it has been rooted in our cultures.