Origin of the Festival & Story of a Great Patriotic Poet, Qu Yuan
This festival can be traced back to 278 BC in the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period. The festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (屈原), a cadet member of the Chu royal house who served in high offices. The king of Chu (not an emperor; the first official emperor in the Chinese history is Qin Shi Huang who united China as a single empire) decided to ally with the powerful state of Qin. Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River (汨罗江). It is said that the locals who admired Qu raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body. This is said to have been the origin of dragon boat races (划龙舟比赛).
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’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi (粽子), a type of festive treat made mainly of glutinous rice.
What Do People Do on this Festival?
Three of the most widespread activities for the Duanwu Festival are: Preparing and eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine (so called the Yellow wine; 雄黄酒), and racing dragon boats (although this is more popular in the southern parts of China). Other common activities include hanging mugwort and calamus on the front door (to avoid bad luck/spirits), wearing perfumed herbal bags (戴香包) and taking long walks. One particularly interesting traditional activity is to try and get a raw egg to stand up by itself at noon. If you achieve this difficult feat, you be blessed with good fortune for the next year.