Today is the day to race dragon boats, eat sticky rice zongzi, sip a bit of arsenic-laced wine, wear amulets and hang herbs around the door to ward off pests, illness and evil. Wang Jie explains.
Today is celebrated as the joyous Dragon Boat Festival, which is also known as the Duanwu or Double Fifth Festival, a day to ward off pests, illness and evil.
It's hard to connect the dragon boat racing and eating zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) with the activities to protect against evil on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar - an inauspicious day since the early days of summer brought pestilence.
But they are two separate ancient traditions that came together in one of the most colorful and fascinating festivals in China.
The Dragon Boat Festival is believed to stem from ancient dragon worship. But today the popular legend links it - and the zongzi - with the death of Qu Yuan, a poet and honest minister during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
He is said to have advised the emperor against going to war, for which he was criticized by hawkish rivals and then exiled. When the emperor went to war and was defeated, Qu is said to have committed suicide by throwing himself into Miluo River in central China's Hunan Province.
People who admired him rushed to retrieve his body and threw rice (today's zongzi ) into the river so that fish would eat the rice instead of Qu's body.
But there are other traditions and associations on this day.
"For me, the most impressive thing about the Dragon Boat Festival is the love story of Lady White Snake," says Jay Wu, a professional in his 40s. "The climax of the story takes place on Duanwu."
It's the story of a young scholar who falls in love with a beautiful woman, unaware that she is a thousand-year-old white snake that has taken human form. Over centuries the story has evolved from a horror tale into a romance. In the legend, it is on Duanwu that Lady White Snake is forced to reveal her true serpent form when she is obliged to drink realgar (arsenic sulfide) wine, which breaks her spell. Her husband dies of horror but she later brings him back to life.
In ancient times it was also customary to drink yellow wine with some realgar (xionghuang jiu) and powdered cinnabar added - this turned the wine red, an auspicious color signifying power.
Both arsenic and cinnabar also had medicinal purposes and were used to expel evil, toxins, ghosts and insects. Realgar was considered an antidote to poison. It is also said that an old doctor poured realgar wine into the river to kill monsters and prevent them from eating the body of Qu Yuan.
"Today almost no one would drink rice wine containing arsenic sulfide and there are no shops selling it," says Christine Wu, a university student. "But I am a bit curious about how it tastes."
She says that for Duanwu her mother usually goes to the wet market to buy a bunch of argy wormwood leaves and hang them around the doorway of their apartment. Its odor repels mosquitoes, flies and moths. Other herbs, such as mugwort and calamus (sweet flag) are also used to repeal pests. Traditionally people used leaves that were shaped like spears or tiger's claws.
"This is a tradition I inherited from my mother," says retired worker Wu Amei. "Although there are insecticide sprays, coils and lamps, wormwood is more natural. Most importantly, I regard hanging wormwood around the door as a ritual to bless the family."
Many people today buy red sachet bags filled with herbs like wormwood and mugwort, as well as realgar and cinnabar. These are supposed to repel pests and protect the wearer from illness and evil.
Throughout China, pharmacies sell colorful sachets and charms as well as paper bags of herbs for burning in the home.
In the old days it was essential to place herbal "five poison" amulets around children's necks or in their garment pockets to protect them. While adults drank a bit of realgar wine, children received a few drops of realgar on their foreheads.
The best sachets today are often made in red and gold silk intricately embroidered with flowers, animals and figures. The most elaborate ones can be found in Shanghai's City God Temple.
The Dragon Boat Festival is also a time to eat pyramid-shaped zongzi, glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with rich food, wrapped in leaves and steamed. The zongzi may be stuffed with sweet red beans, lotus seeds, dates, chestnuts, pork fat, the golden yolk of a salted duck egg and other rich foods.
It's also a tradition for many Chinese families to make zongzi at home.
"My parents would wrap zongzi themselves during the Dragon Boat Festival, since that way they could ensure the purity of ingredients," says businessman Zhang Lixing. "I told them it was too much work and there was no way we could eat all those greasy zongzi. My wife is on a diet and I have diabetes."
But for many old people, making zongzi is a link with their children and grandchildren. The fun of wrapping zongzi reminds everyone of family caring and bonds.
By Wang Jie
23 June 2012