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Duanwu Festival
Duanwu Festival

    For thousands of years, the tradition of the Duanwu Festival has been passed down from one generation to the next.  But where did it come from and why did people eat Zongzi and race dragon boats?  Many scholars have studied these questions and given their academic explanations.
    One explanation is that the Duanwu Festival originated from people’s worship of dragons.  In ancient China, people believed the dragon was the god in charge of water, which was vitally important to daily life and agricultural production.  On the day of Duanwu, people raced dragon boats to entertain the god and offered him Zongzi as a treat.  The sole purpose was to please the god to ensure a year of favorable weather.
    Some people believe Duanwu comes from activities instigated by ancient sorcerers. These activities were held in early summer when the hot weather was about to bring diseases to people who didn't have modern devices and medicines to protect themselves.  So, ancient sorcerers encouraged people to wear fragrant pouches and hang mugwort and calamus on their doors to drive away the so-called evil spirits that caused diseases.
    Scholars may provide many other explanations about the origin of the Duanwu Festival. But if you ask ordinary people about its origin, you’ll get the same answer.  They will tell you that the Duanwu Festival honors the great poet, Qu Yuan. They’ll also tell you the story that has been passed down for more than 2,000 years.

    Qu Yuan was born in 340 BC, during the Warring States Period.  At that time, there were several states struggling among themselves to unify China.  Of the seven states, Qin was the strongest and Chu the largest.
    Qu Yuan was a noble of Chu. During his lifetime, the powerful kingdom of Chu fell into a decline.
     Early in his life, Qu Yuan won the confidence of the king of Chu, and was his deputy prime minister, helping draft laws and determine foreign policy.  When he saw the danger posed by the ambitious Qin State, he proposed government reforms and an alliance with the neighboring Qi state as a way to ensure Chu’s safety.
    But the King of Chu was surrounded by self-seekers, who were jealous of Qu Yuan. They accepted bribes from the Qin’s envoy, dissuaded the King from taking Qu Yuan’s advice and brought about the poet’s estrangement from the King.  Qu Yuan was finally sent into exile for 20 years.
    During those desperate years, Qu Yuan helplessly watched his beloved country become weaker every day.  In the year 278 BC, the capital of Chu was stormed by troops from Qin.  In geat pain, Qu Yuan wrote “Lisao” or The Lament”, the greatest of all his poems. ON the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, he drowned himself in the Milo River, because he was hopeless about his country’s future.
    Qu Yuan died thousands of years ago, but he is remembered every year for his love of and loyalty to his country and his people.  In his poems, he wrote:

  Long did I sigh and wipe away my tears,
  To see my people bowed by grieves and fears.


  The people’s sufferings move my heart,
  Our land I cannot leave.

    People grieve for those who have grieved for them. Each year, during the Duanwu Festival, the day of Qu Yuan’s death, people race dragon boats to commemorate him.  This is believed to be a representation of how the people of Chu tried, at the time, to recover Qu Yuan’s body from the Milo River.  Pyramid-shaped dumplings by the name of Zlongzi were thrown in the river to feed the fish, so they would stay away Qu Yuan’s body.
    Qu Yuan’s life was tragic, but as a poet, he achieved great success.  In fact, he is considered to be the first poet in Chinese literature. Before his time, there were only folk songs.  Qu Yuan created a new style of poetry, which became known and Chu Ci.

Li Yun, "Duanwu Festival," in Li Ping, (1998).  Cultural Background of China, p. 34-36; Beijing, China: World Publishing Corporation.

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Jean W. LeLoup
Modern Languages Department
Copyright © 2000, 2014 Jean W. LeLoup; technical modifications Bob Ponterio