Dragon Boat Festival


Dragon Boat Festival
(Duanwujie)
For the Duanwu festival, people make glutinous rice rolls (zongzi) and hold dragon boat races. The traditional explanation of this festival is that these acts are performed in honour of the poet and minister (and patriot) Qu Yuan, who, unjustly accused and banished, committed suicide by leaping into the river on that day. It is also generally recognized that the festival has an exorcistic function, inasmuch as people hang prophylactic plants on their doors. More explicitly, the dragon boat races are meant to drive away the gods who bring epidemics (wenshen). In Luokou, for example, in Ningdu county, Gannan, after two weeks of theatre in honour of the local gods, on the fourth day of the fifth moon the population organizes a procession through the village. At its head there is a wooden dragon, followed by flag-bearers and then the palanquin of the main god, Zhugong (Ancestor Zhu); next comes an orchestra and three persons carrying a paper boat and a basket. The dragon first, then Zhugong, enter each house in turn, the first to purify it, the second to be worshipped, and the people then place negative offerings in the paper boat and positive ones in the basket. The next day, in the late afternoon, when each house has been visited, a Daoist priest (see Daoist priests) leads the procession to the waterfront, downstream from the village, and there the paper boat and all its negativity are burned.
The people explain—and the prayers recited by the Daoist confirm—that they are sending away the gods who bring pestilence.
A little to the south, in the county seat of Shicheng, each of the town’s ten major temples had its own dragon boat, and three of these temples organized their own festivals at the beginning of the fifth moon. Already on the eighth day of the fourth moon, the temple dedicated to Houji had launched its boat. Holding peachwood branches in their hands, the people lined the shores of the river waiting for the boat to pass, and when it did, they used the branches to throw mosquitoes into the boat (the words for ‘mosquito’ and ‘epidemic’ are homophonous). On the last day of the fourth moon, everyone swept out their houses. On the first two days of the fifth moon, a dragon, whose head and tail were of wood, was carried from house to house to purify them: this was called ‘sweeping the earth’ (saogan). On the third day, it was time to ‘sweep the water’ (saoshui), which consisted in carrying the dragon, a paper boat and Houji in procession throughout the town. On the fifth day of the month the ten temples’ dragon boats raced each other, and on the sixth day, after a one-day Jiao, the paper boat was carried to the river to be burned: this was called ‘the dragon takes to the water’.
The examples could be multiplied, but let us rather note another, most curious phenomenon, also associated with Duanwu, to wit ‘rock fights’. This phenomenon has been encountered recently in a village in Meixian county where the Wang and Xie lineages, separated by a river and generations of enmity, line up every year at Duanwu on either side of the river to throw stones at each other until the blood flows.
JOHN LAGERWEY

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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