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Characterized by diverse styles, various themes, and rich content, traditional Chinese festivals compose an integral and brilliant part of China’s history and culture, both ancient and modern.

Most traditional festivals took shape 5000 years ago during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and were well established around the time of the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220). Its history of formation is part of a long process of historical and cultural accumulation of China as a nation.

Festival customs passed down to today still boast their individual unique origins that reflect religious practice, superstitious taboo, legends and myths, and an amazing picture of the earthly and spiritual life of ancient people.

Moreover, traditional Chinese festivals are often connected with ancient astronomy, chronology, mathematics, the lunar calendar and jieqi, the twenty-four solar terms.

Chinese Traditional Festival (12 Books)

From now on, I am going to start a new series: Traditional Chinese Festivals. It begins with the Dragon Boat Festival, since it is Fifth of May in Chinese lunar calendar or June 12, 2013, which is today.

Dragon Boat Festival, called “Duanwu Jie” in Chinese, has been celebrated in China for more than 2,000 years and is notable for its educational influence. People celebrate the festival by eating rice dumplings zongzi, drinking realgar wine xionghuangjiu (雄黃酒), and racing dragon boats.

A number of folklores and legends are connected to its observance, but the best known relates to the suicide in 278 BCE of Qu Yuan, poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom during the Warring States period.

Qu Yuan was born around 339 B.C. According to historical records, in his youth Qu Yuan had wide learning and a retentive memory with great talent and insight. He also had firm and uninhibited character, which was reflected in his poems.

Orange, fair tree of Heaven and Earth,
Hail to thee, here habiteth thou!
Endowed the trait not to be moved,
Thou dost in this southern land grow.

These are some lines from “Ode to the Orange.” Comparing himself to an orange tree, he expressed his noble mind that he would uphold the principles of virtues and morals without any vacillation.

Dragon Boat Festival

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Around 322 B.C. at the age of 17, Qu Yuan left his hometown and came to Ying, the capital of the Kingdom of Chu, seeking opportunities to fulfill his ambitions. He gained deep appreciation from the king of Chu, and became a Left Councilor, this was an important post.

The Warring States Period (453 B.C–256 B.C) in which Qu Yuan lived was a time when the three powerful kingdoms of Qin, Chu and Qi fought fiercely against each other for control of the entire country. Among the three kingdoms, the most powerful one was Qin. To fight against the Kingdom of Qin, Qu Yuan advocated forging an alliance between the kingdoms of Chu and Qi. Approximately in 320 B.C Qu Yuan visited the Kingdom of Qi and successfully persuaded the king of Qi to agree forming an alliance with the Kingdom of Chu.

After his accomplishment in diplomatic relations, Qu Yuan continued to reform internal affairs, ameliorate national economy, and value talented people. His capabilities incurred the jealousy of the court and hatred from the aristocracy of Chu, who indulged in luxurious and extravagant life neglecting state affairs. Near 313 B.C., the King believing the credulous lies and slanders from the aristocrats, expelled Qu Yuan from Capital Ying, and banished him to the lands north of Hanjiang River.

Dragon Boat Festival: Duan Dragon Boat Festival: Wu Dragon Boat Festival: Jie
Chinese Traditional Festival: Dragon Boat Festival

In 312 B.C. the Kingdom of Chu was defeated twice by the Kingdom of Qin, losing 80,000 warriors and a large stretch of land. By that time, the alliance between the kingdoms of Chu and Qi had already broken. As a last resort King Huai of the Chu Kingdom recalled Qu Yuan and dispatched him to visit the Kingdom of Qi again. Once more Qu Yuan accomplished his mission.

The two kingdoms of Chu and Qi became allies. Later Qu Yuan was appointed as Lord of Three Portals, a position whose duties included being in charge of the royal family affairs and royal descendants’ education.In 299 B.C. King Huai of the Chu Kingdom was tricked into visiting the capital of the Qin Kingdom and died there. Qu Yuan bitterly denounced those pro-Qin traitorous aristocrats.

As a result, he was exiled to the distant and desolate area south of the Yangtze.In 277 B.C., the Kingdom of Qin captured Ying, the capital city of the Chu Kingdom. Qu Yuan, who was exiled to Miluo River area, could no longer bear the downfall of his State. He plunged into Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar. This “plaint on Ying,” finished by Qu Yuan in his remaining days, vividly reflected that he shared the same fate with his country.

Long hath mine heart been constringed by suffering.
Sore sorrows after sore sorrows I do dree;
I think of how far stretched the way is to Ying,
How shiah and river could not crossed be.

The Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar year, is one of the oldest Chinese festivals. As Qu Yuan passed away on that day, it became a festival to commemorate him from then on. An important traditional festival for the whole nation has become the commemoration day for a poet. This might be rare in the world.

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