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Dragon Boat Festival and Legends of True Loyalty

June 08, 2016 4 min read

Dragon Boat Festival. (Redstone/Sutterstock)

The festival takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional lunar calendar, which gives it the alternative name, the Double Fifth Festival.

The traditional focus of most celebrations involves eating zongzi (sticky rice treats wrapped in bamboo leaves), hanging “changpu” on the door (a medical plant to avoid the plague), wearing 5 color silk threads, and racing dragon boats.

Chinese Rice Dumpling, Zongzi. (IamDOT/Shutterstock)

There are 2 famous people associated with this festival. They both lost their lives because of their loyalty and deep love of their country, and both were highly respected among their people even though their king did not treat them fairly.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

Today in modern China it is popularly believed that the dragon boat festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC). Qu served the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. He was a high official under King Huai of Chu. However, when the King decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu opposed the alliance, and was not only banished but also accused of treason. During his exile Qu wrote a lot of poetry, with his poems contributing profoundly to “The Songs of the South”, one of the two great collections of ancient Chinese verse. Twenty-eight years later, the Chu capital of Ying fell to the Qin. Despite his lengthy banishment Qu Yuan’s loyalty to his country had never wavered, and in despair he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.

Portrait of Qu Yuan by Chen Hongshou (17th century) (Wikipedia)


Qu was much admired by the local people, and legend has it that they raced out in their boats to try to save him. This is said to be the origin of the dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi.

Loyalty to the Country

According to local government documents published in 1883 during the Qing Dynasty, the Dragon Boat Festival is actually to commemorate a gentleman named Wu Zixu. In fact, there are many similarities between the stories of Wu Zixu and Qu Yuan. Wu was a general and court official in the Wu Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BCE). When one king died, Wu failed to gain favour with his successor, King Fu Chai. Fu Chai was intent on reconciliation with the state of Yue, but Wu sensed danger. He could have stayed quiet and saved his life, but instead, out of great loyalty to his country, he insisted on repeating to King Fu Chai the error of his ways. Eventually Yue conquered the state of Wu, but it was too late for Wu Zixu by then - he had been forced to kill himself ten years earlier.

Wu Zixu. (91ddcc.com)

Wu’s forced suicide took place on the 5th day of the 5th month, and his body was thrown into the Suzhou river, each providing strong associations with the Dragon Boat Festival. In some parts of China Wu Zixu is even worshipped as a river god, and given the title “God of Waves”.

Twisted Traditional Value

More than one of my friends who grow up in Western society shared with me about their problem with their Chinese friends. If they mention a different understanding about China, especially if they disagree with something the Chinese Communist Party has done, their Chinese friends may easily become irrational and blow up. It is as if they think they are attacking their homeland, invoking strong feelings to guard their homeland. But my Western friends don’t feel the same way when their Chinese friends making fun of Obama or the current presidential candidates. They may enjoy the joke with their Chinese friends, or perhaps send long messages on Facebook to defend their favourite candidates, but none of those actions will be associated with “loyalty to USA”.

Why there is such difference?

Because loyalty, one of the most important traditional values in Chinese culture, and still deeply held by most Chinese people today, has been twisted after decades of deliberate brainwashing. Without realizing the effects of this brainwashing, “loving China”, “loving Chinese Culture” and “loving the Communist Party” are mixed together in Chinese people’s minds. But if you go back and trace the origin of this value in the Divine Land, the traditional values are so different. Neither Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu, the role models of loyalty, are respected because they pleased their king. In fact the opposite is true. They took great personal risk to tell their respective kings that there was a better way. There are many characters in ancient Chinese culture who devoted their lives to a certain ruler or certain dynasty; but because they held onto a higher value, Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu have been respected by history and by the people.

If Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu held the same twisted value as many of today’s Chinese people who have suffered deliberate brainwashing, they could have probably saved themselves a lot of suffering caused by conflicts with the king or people who didn’t understand them. But in that case, we also would not have the legend of the Dragon Boat Festival to help us appreciate the deeper meaning of real loyalty.

Produced and researched by Ariel Tian.

Edited by James Poulter.

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