You’ve probably heard of the Dragon Boat Festival. Landing on June 14 this summer, this festival is a Chinese holiday where people celebrate by eating Zongzi (粽子), drinking Xionghuang liquor (雄黄酒), and racing in dragon boats. 

It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a good time. In fact, with all the cheerful customs for this holiday, it is hard to believe that it came from a tragic story. But did you know about the festival’s sad backstory?

Art by MoinWong from Guangzhou

The Story of Qu Yuan

Although the festival’s origin has different attributions, the most common one in China originates from a suicide: the suicide of Qu Yuan.

Born in 340 BCE, Qu Yuan was a great poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom. “The Chu kingdom?” you might ask, “I thought this was about China!” 

Well, actually, this was during the “Spring and Autumn” period of Chinese history, otherwise called the Warring States Period. 

Map of China in the Warring States period

Like its name, many smaller states were at war for power in the place where China now stands. The first Chinese dynasty had yet to be established, and China had yet to be united. 

Now, the two strongest “bosses” were the Chu and the Qin Kingdoms. Qu Yuan, a loyal minister of the Chu Emperor, advocated to fight back against the Qin before they crushed them to bits. However, all the other corrupt officials disagreed.

Art by 木木夕由 from Guangzhou

In the end, Qu Yuan was charged with false accusations of conspiracy and exiled from his kingdom, to the Qin Emperor’s utmost delight.

His Suicide and its Aftermath

With Qu gone, and without his wisdom, the Chu Kingdom became weaker and weaker. Finally, in 278 BCE, the Qin Kingdom defeated them. The Chu was no more.

This news brought Qu Yuan to the brink of despair. Although wronged by his Emperor and state, Qu Yuan was still unconditionally loyal to his home. 

So when his kingdom fell, he decided to perish with it. Headfirst, he dove into the Miluo River.

Art by 珂珂兢 from Chongqing

Ok, so we reached the end of the story. But this is still a long ways away from dragon boat racing and eating zongzi. Where did that all come from?

Well, the local villagers were devastated after Qu Yuan's death. Believing him to be an honorable man, they searched desperately in their boats for his body to no avail. 

To prevent the fishes in the river from eating his body, they began throwing sacrificial rice in the river instead. People also poured in realgar wine to drive the evil spirits away from his soul. 

Art by 潮汕插画师Sound familiar? Dragon boat racing, eating zongzi (made with glutinous rice), and drinking realgar wine. Qu Yuan’s death was the origin of these customs. 

What happened was that over time, the boats in the river began “racing” each other to see who would find the body first. 

Furthermore, people began adding ingredients into the middle of the rice, leading to the modern sweet or salty zongzi debate. They also started drinking the realgar wine themselves. 

Artist unknown

After thousands of years, the Dragon Boat Festival has evolved into a lighthearted holiday for families and friends to meet up and celebrate. We race with dragon boats and eat zongzi to commemorate Qu Yuan and his legacy.

So now you know the origin story of the Dragon Boat Festival. Next time you celebrate, you’ll know exactly what this day is all about!

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Emilie Zhang

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