Duanwu Festival in ancient paintings

BY ZHANG WEIZHAO | 06-17-2021
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTOS: Paintings from the Qing Dynasty illustrated manuscript, Stories of the Dragon Boat Festival, including “Gathering Herbs” (Left), “Tying Colorful Threads” (Middle), and “Making Zongzi” (Right).

China’s ancient paintings of the Duanwu Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, depict various traditions and customs. These paintings are filled with humanistic charm. 

The ancient Chinese labelled the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar “e yue” (evil month) or “du yue” (poisonous month), as they believed that the fifth lunar month featured rising numbers of poisonous creatures—such as snakes, centipedes, and scorpions—as well as the increased prevalence of diseases due to warmer weather. Therefore, a celebration took form to pray for health and to keep disease away. This celebration fell on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. According to Da Dai Li, a collection of ritual observations written during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), a common practice on this day was yulan, or to soak in an herbal bath of peilan (Eupatorium fortunei Turcz). This tradition became so popular, that the Duanwu Festival was sometimes known as the Yulan Festival. Xia Xiao Zheng, the earliest existing Chinese calendar with a record of agricultural practices, mentions that people traditionally collected medicinal herbs to dispel miasma, which they considered harmful to health. The Yanjing Suishiji (Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking), a book about Beijing’s folk customs compiled during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), records a similar Duanwu practice—decorating doors by hanging mugwort and calamus herbal bouquets to drive misfortune and disease away.
All these festive customs are vividly depicted in the Duanwu Gushi Tuce, or Stories of the Dragon Boat Festival, a collection of eight paintings by Qing Dynasty painter Xu Yang. The third painting in the collection, titled “Gathering Herbs,” illustrates a man and two children gathering medicinal herbs on a lush green mountain. One child is absorbed with selecting branches, picking from a small grove of herbs, while the other one, who seems to have found some precious herbs, is running towards the man cheerfully, as the man looks back and smiles at him. This painting’s inscription reads “Gather herbs around noon on the fifth day when they are of the greatest medical effect.”
The fifth painting is titled “Hanging a Mugwort Doll,” and portrays an essential Duanwu Festival folk event—hanging mugwort branches and dolls made of mugwort twigs above doors. In this painting, a little boy pulls at the edge of his mother’s dress with his left hand, while holding a cattail leaf fan in his right hand. His mother is arm-in-arm with another woman, and they seem to be discussing the mugwort dolls. This painting is inscribed “People who live in the Jingchu region [present-day provinces of Hubei and Hunan] make dolls of mugwort twigs and put them above doors in order to get rid of harmful miasma.” The earliest herbs used during the Duanwu Festival to ward off misfortune and diseases were mugwort and calamus. As pomegranate flowers, garlic, and longchuan flowers (Ixora chinensis Lam.) were believed to have similar functions, these five herbs became known as “the five auspicious signs of Duanwu.”
Harmonious society
“In practicing the rules of propriety, a natural ease is to be prized.” This is a famous line from the Analects, stressing harmonious interpersonal relationships in order to achieve social stability. The pursuit of social harmony can also be found in ancient paintings of the Duanwu Festival. 
The second painting of the Stories of the Dragon Boat Festival collection is titled “Granted Owl Soup,” which portrays a court official accepting an offering of xiaogeng, (owl soup, usually granted by the emperor) in a very respectful way. According to its inscription, Han Dynasty rulers often asked for xiao (owls) as tributes from its fiefdoms. The Han court officials were rewarded with owl soup, because owls were viewed as inauspicious birds. The ritual of “Granted Owl Soup” represents the longing for a harmonious relationship between monarchs and officials, and within society. 
“Watching Dragon Boat Races” is the eighth painting from the Stories of the Dragon Boat Festival. As depicted by its inscription “People gather along the river to watch the dragon boat race,” the painting represents a harmonious society from the perspective of common people. It is said that the dragon boat race was originally held to commemorate Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE), poet and minister of the Chu state during the Warring States Period. After the Tang Dynasty (618–907), it gradually became an essential Duanwu Festival custom.
Ties of kinship
The sixth painting of Stories of the Dragon Boat Festival, titled “Tying Colorful Threads,” depicts a boy leaning forward and tying a bracelet of colorful threads to the wrist of an old man. Tying five-color threads to wrists is a Duanwu Festival tradition, which is also aimed at warding off bad luck. The inscription on this painting reads “Tying a thread of five colors [blue, red, yellow, white, and black] to wrists will prolong peoples’ lives.” This custom represents the younger generations’ good wishes for their elders. 
Another important festival custom is vividly illustrated on the seventh painting— “Making Zongzi.” The painting’s inscription follows: “During the Duanwu Festival, people wrap glutinous rice in the leaves of Manchurian wild rice.” This festive dish is similarly described in Fengtu Ji (Record of Local Folkways), an early Chinese text about local customs and traditions compiled during the Western Jin Dynasty (265–317). According to Fengtu Ji, zongzi is made of glutinous rice stuffed with Chinese dates and foxtail millet, wrapped in Manchurian wild rice leaves, and then boiled in lye (produced by mixing wood ash with water). While illustrating Duanwu Festival customs, the “Making Zongzi” painting also displays a happy family life. In a courtyard, a woman sits on a bench and prepares ingredients for zongzi. Meanwhile, she is looking tenderly at a child, who is concentrating on making zongzi from across the table. The table is barely within the child’s reach, but he seems to be making zongzi carefully and earnestly with encouragement from his mother. Next to the child is a toddler. The table is too high for him, but he is standing on a small footstool—perhaps he also wants to help with the preparation. Another woman is standing next to the toddler, chatting with the woman across the table, while keeping her left arm around the toddler’s waist to prevent him from falling off the footstool. In terms of composition, the positions of the well, Chinese parasol trees, and palm trees in the backyard, form a triangle, which creates a sense of relaxation. This artistic composition, together with the rich greenery of trees as well as leaves that are used to make zongzi, highlight the warm, gentle atmosphere surrounding the maternal bond of the figures.
The health-and-wellness centered customs and culture of the Duanwu Festival can be viewed as a unique wisdom and lifestyle developed by the Chinese ancestors. Carried forward through continuous accumulation and inheritance, the Duanwu Festival’s culture and traditions have been turned into an intangible cultural heritage, which represents, even to this day, the Chinese nation’s cultural traits. 
Zhang Weizhao is an associate professor from Hangzhou Normal University.