端午節, or Duanwu Festival, is a traditional Chinese memorial day which for years has been inappropriately translated into English as Dragon Boat Festival. Though it is a fact that dragon boat racing is a must-held activity to celebrate this holiday, this translation does not reflect the spirit why this day has been celebrated by Chinese worldwide regularly for nearly 2300 years.
In Chinese, 端午is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This particular date marks the death of Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.). As a scholar and minister serving under the king of the Chu state during the Warring States period (403-221 BC) in China, Qu Yuan constantly gave warnings to his king to beware of the ambitious attempt of the Qin state from the north. Unfortunately, his king not only refused to take his advice but expelled him out of the court. In his exile Qu Yuan was very depressed when he heard that Qin had invaded his country. In despair, he committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River in today's Hunan province. Out of respect for his patriotism and for fear that the fish in the river might ruin his body, people threw packages made of glutinous rice into the river for the fish to eat. The packages or dumplings later became Zongzi, a food that must be prepared for this day. The search for his body by boat later became dragon boat racing held every year on this day.
Calling this particular day Dragon Boat Festival or Double Fifth may be easier for foreigners to pronounce but does not highlight the significance for commemorating this great character in Chinese history. The direct translation of Duanwu Festival would be more ideal than others.
The Duanwu Festival, is also called Mid-year Day. As the weather is getting hotter and various contagious diseases are easily spread, May has been regarded as “Vice Month” or “The Month of a Hundred Toxic Substances.” Therefore, ancient Chinese would use five kinds of plants--- acorus calamus, artemisia argy, pomegranate blossom, garlic, and lilium pumilum (菖蒲、艾草、石榴花、蒜頭和山丹) to rid of the diseases. Thus, this day may well be called a sanitation day of the ancient China.
In 1911 after the founding of the Republic of China, this day was designated as a “Summer Festival” and later “Poet’s Day” to commemorate Qu Yuan, also a patriotic poet.
This post was first published on June 6, 2011. This is a revised version.