Dragon Boat Festival, Qu Yuan, and a Tradition of Spirit-Appeasing

As summer approaches, another interesting Chinese festival is just around the corner. Duanwu Jie, or the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar – this year, June 18. There are many interesting explanations for the origin of this festival, all of which involve dragons, spirits, loyalty, and food – some of the most important aspects of traditional Chinese life and folklore. The two main elements of the festival are racing long, narrow boats decorated with dragons and eating sticky-rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves.

So how did this festival come about? As the story goes, Qu Yuan was an advisor in the court of Chu during the Warring States period in ancient China. As China was caught up in this three-way civil war, Qu Yuan was exiled by the emperor for perceived disloyalty. He had proposed that his state of Chu ally with the state of Qi to fight off the state of Qin, but the emperor didn’t see Qin as a threat and assumed Qu Yuan to be a traitor sympathizing with Qi. However, not long after being exiled, Qin did in fact capture and imprison the Chu emperor, which led to the state of Chu’s surrender. Learning of the tragic news, Qu Yuan threw himself to his death in the Miluo River.

From this point, the legend has a few differing endings. One of the more popular conclusions says that after searching for Qu Yuan for some time, people became concerned that he would be eaten by a water dragon and determined that the best course of action was to throw sticky-rice dumplings, called 粽子 (zongzi), into the river so that the water dragons would eat them instead of Qu Yuan.

A second wide-spread ending to the legend says that Qu Yuan simply drowned and became a water spirit after his death. He was perceived as a ghost that needed to be appeased, and the people determined the best way to appease this spirit was to give it food. For many years after his death, Qu Yuan’s supporters would throw zongzi into the water to appease the spirit, but the sticky-rice dumplings were always eaten by a water dragon before his spirit could get to them. After years of hungry frustration, Qu Yuan’s ghost appeared to them instructing them to wrap the dumplings in bamboo leaves so the dragon wouldn’t eat them before he could get to them.

Over the centuries, this legend has evolved into the celebration known today as Dragon Boat Festival. In cities and towns throughout modern China, townspeople will build, decorate, and race dragon boats; and they will make steamed zongzi for their family and friends.

Modern Chinese people recognize the above legend as just that – legend. However because of Qu Yuan’s story and other legends like it, many are still convinced of the need to appease the spirits and satisfy the gods with incense, food, and other gifts. There are many evil spirits in Chinese folklore, and they must be fended off to ensure a peaceful life full of good fortune. If they can just burn more incense, offer more food, burn more hell money, or light more firecrackers, then maybe the gods will look favorably upon them and bless them with prosperity.

How sad it is that they have yet to hear of the love of God! How sad it is that they have yet to hear of how He commended His love, in that while they were yet sinners, Christ died for them (see Romans 5:8)! How sad it is that they don’t know that this Christ is the propitiation, the appeasement, for sin (see 1 John 2:2)! How sad it is that they burn incense at temples and offer food at the graves of ancestors to appease the spirits, when the one true God offered the ultimate appeasement for sin 2,000 years ago at Calvary!

Friends, would you please pray for the people of China? Would you pray for them today? Would you pray that the Lord would raise up more messengers to take these glad tidings to them so that they may hear, believe, call upon the name of Lord Christ, and be saved?


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