Sat 7 Jun 2008
My daughter Blysse handed me a note to sign on Friday morning for her school which stated that in celebration of Duanwujie, (Dragon Boat Festival) the students would all get three days off from school: Saturday June 7th; Sunday June 8th; and Monday June 9th. My guard was up immediately. (You can see my thoughts on the unique Chinese method of allocating holidays from a few years back in my article, “What?! School on Sunday?!?!“)
My suspicion aroused, I asked, “OK, if they are specifically stating that you have Saturday and Sunday off, which you already had, does that mean they are going to add extra days next week and make you go to school on Saturday and Sunday?”
“No,” she replied, “But we do get Monday off.”
“Then why are they telling me that you are getting three days off, when in fact, you’re only getting one?” Blysse responded with a shrug that has become typical when I demand an explanation for something about Chinese culture which, from my American perspective, defies description. I brought the subject up with several Chinese acquaintances, and it seems I am not alone in noticing this ironic bequeathing of that which we already had. This year marks the commencement of a new holiday schedule, which saw the shortening of the Golden Week period in early May, and the addition of several shorter holidays throughout the year. The total tally is basically unchanged, but everyone gets more frequent breaks. To accomplish this, they have taken some traditional festivals and elevated them to public holidays. Duanwujie is one such holiday.
The most widely accepted version of the origin of this holiday is that is commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan, who rose to fame during in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of Chu royalty, when the king allied with the rival state of Qin, Qu Yuan was banished for his vocal opposition of the alliance. Throughout his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, and when the Qin eventually conquered his beloved Chu capital, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional lunar calendar, which falls on June 8 this year.
The three most widespread activities for the Duanwu Festival are preparing and eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats. Some also adorn their house with images of guardian Zhong Kui, hang up mugwort and calamus, take long walks, and wear perfumed medicine bags, leading some modern researchers to conclude that the holiday was superimposed upon an ancient traditional holiday designed to ward off summer disease and evil. The festival has certainly been popular for a very long time, and is celebrated in various forms throughout many Asian countries. Now that it is an official holiday, it may rise in significance, though not perhaps for the reasons intended.