Chinese urged to retain Duanwu traditions

Updated: 2007-06-19 08:43

BEIJING -- The appeal of traditional Chinese holidays is alleged to lie in the eating: mooncakes on the Mid-Autumn Festival, sweet dumplings on Lantern Day, and glutinous rice dumplings for Duanwu, or Dragon Boat Festival.

But in the run-up to the Dragon Boat Festival, many are questioning whether modern China is being left starved of the spirit of the traditional holidays.

The Dragon Boat Festival on Tuesday will see housewives are wrapping glutinous rice with bamboo or reed leaves, which are, according to tradition, thrown into rivers to spare from the fish's mouths the body of a patriotic poet who drowned more than 2,000 years ago.

The poet, Qu Yuan, lived in the state of Chu during the Warring States period (475 B.C. to 221 B.C.). He drowned himself in the Miluo River in today's Hunan Province in 278 B.C., on fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, hoping his death could awaken the king to revitalize the kingdom.

The date has since been remembered as the Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival, on which local fishermen row dragon boats along the Miluo river to search for Qu Yuan and scatter glutinous rice dumplings in the water to prevent the fish from eating his body.

But as the Chinese people's overall living standards improve, the traditional snack is increasingly available and there's much less to celebrate on the "glutinous rice dumpling day".

Some hotels and food companies have embellished the snack in expensive gift packages with the dumplings, salted eggs, wine and even abalone and shark's fins selling for around 2,000 yuan each.

"Many Chinese were hurt when the Republic of Korea's application to list Duanwu as its own cultural heritage was accepted by UNESCO in 2005," said Chen Jing, a professor of folk culture with the Nanjing University. "But it's a shame to see that many of us still take the occasion as one merely for eating snacks or for showing off wealth."

The whole nation needs to look back to the spirit of its traditional culture on these centuries-old holidays, experts say.

"Our forefathers believed that people were most susceptible to disease in the fifth month of the lunar calendar, also the hottest time of the year," said Gao Chengyuan, a specialist on folk customs based in Tianjin. "On Duanwu Festival, people got up early to collect dew to cleanse their eyes and drink liquor to ward off snakes and mosquitoes."

Children in particular would wear sachets filled with herbs and spices and aprons embroidered with the five evils -- scorpion, toad, spider, snake and centipede -- as mascots to protect them through the summer, said Gao.

"As a child I used to complain with my mother when she didn't conjure up a sachet as beautiful as my friends'," said Yang Jun, a 25-year-old store owner in Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang Province. "When I have a daughter someday, I'll sew her the most beautiful sachets."

Through certain rituals, people would put the "evil spirits" on board dragon boats and compete to see whose bad luck was sent farther away, which was how the occasion got the name of "Dragon Boat Festival".

Many riverside towns in central and southern China still organize dragon boat races ahead of the festival, though many admit the holiday is more associated with eating than the race.

"We need to save from traditional culture from disappearing," said Prof. Chen Jing from Nanjing University. "Otherwise we'll lose even more heritage items."

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