Warding Off Evil and Disease
The Dragon Boat Festival is a national holiday in Taiwan. According to one Taiwanese government website, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and together with Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival forms one of the three major Chinese holidays.
Since the summer is a time when diseases most easily spread, Dragon Boat Festival began as an occasion for driving off evil spirits and pestilence and for finding peace in one's life. The festival was later enriched by the legend of the patriot Chu Yuan. It is the Chinese festival that has the longest history, dating back well-over 2 millenia. The festival's significance is seen as both a kick-off to summer and, more important, as a time for warding off evil and disease.
Chu Yuan: Civil Servant Who Opposed Imperial Court
According to many Chinese textbooks, Chu Yuan was descended from the imperial family, and an air of suffering nobility and fantasy can easily be sensed in his works. He is one of the greatest Chinese poets of all times. His tragic death is commemorated each year on the fifth day of the fifth moon by dragon boat races and the offering of rice (zongzi) thrown into the water. On that day, Chu Yuan committed suicide in the Milo River of Hunan Province.
Chu Yuan, unlike too many Chinese and American officials today, was willing to speak the truth to the powerful, and he suffered for his truths. Under the war-making Emperor King Huai (329-299 B.C.), Chu Yuan stood up and opposed the war-making plans of others in the Imperial Court and some of his own advisors who drew up (and subsequently carried out) plans to engage in a series of wars of expansion. This vocal opposition led to his first exile as in 303 B.C. when he was banished, never to return to power.
According to legend, Chu Yuan, then wandered over the countryside, principally in the region of the vast inland Tung-ting Lake in Northern Hunan. During this time he collected legends, rearranged folk odes, and wrote the long, tragic poem of complaint against the Emperor known as Li Sao. Eventually, unable to bear his fate any longer, he drowned himself.
By the time Yuan took his own life by drowning himself in a river in the 3rd century B.C., he had already likely become the most popular author or poet of his day. He's still considered by some to be the Father of Chinese poetry.
Prior to sending him into his own internal exile, the Imperial Court slandered Chu Yuan greatly. It was this unfair series of slanders about him being a traitor that haunted him throughout his days -- all simply because he had blown the whistle on the other Imperial Ministers for wanting to wage a series of needless wars of expansion and attrition.
According to one Chinese source, on May 5, 278 B.C., "he [Chu Yuan] eventually jumped into the Miluo River holding a big stone. His spirit of being unwilling to go along with others in devil deeds, his noble character and sterling integrity ha[ving] been always respected. Now Qu Yuan's spirit has become a symbol of the noble and persevering spirit of the Chinese people."
In short, about 2,300 years ago, Chu Yuan became the symbol for the Confucian state of China; the eptiomy of a civil servant with integrity who stands by and for the people, and above the desires and vanity of others who are seeking only power and war.
Legend of Chu Yuan
You might ask how did the legend of Chu Yuan get tied in with the concept of a dragonboat race -- and then later on, tied in with the annual dragon boat festivals around the globe?
One Beijing government website notes that there are several favorite legends concerning the founding of the DRAGON BOAT TRADITION in China. However, the legends around Chu yuan are among the most popular. In Beijing's narration of the great poet and once-upon-a-time prime minister (after a short exile), Chu Yuan returned to his homeland where he hoped to institute reforms. In poems he satirized the corruption, selfishness and disregard for the people on the part of dubious characters who had achieved trusted positions.
Finally, in 296 BC, Chu Yuan, then in his mid 50s, was banished for the second time. Grieving for the condition of his homeland, for years he [then] wandered about south of the Yangtze River.
In frustration at being unable to do anything to save his state, he clasped a big stone to his breast and leaped [sic] into the river to end his life.