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Yilan, Taiwan
I'm a Social Studies teacher and single mom from Colorado and have lived here for 9 years. Taiwan is an excellent base for us explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety, while benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dragon Boat Festival 端午節

June 23, 2012 Anping
 The Dragon Boat Festival or "Duan Wu" or "Duan Yang" (Duan-Wu meaning Duan means beginning. Wu means Horse month) It can "Upright Sun" or "Double Fifth" in Chinese) is one of the major Chinese festivals officially celebrated in here in Taiwan on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. There are several poetic and depressing stories about the actual origin of the festival, most involving suicide and drowning. (Try explaining that to a class of 4 year olds; I just tell them Chu Yuan fell into the water and didn't know how to swim--so take some swimming lessons!)

There is the philosopher/poet/statesman Qu Yuan (340 BC-278 BC or 343-290 B.C.), which is the most popular story. He tied a massive rock around is neck and jumped in the river after the king was persuaded by his peers not to take his, Qu Yuan's counsel, the king was killed and the neighboring enemy king took over. The common people were so distraught with is suicide they made glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and threw them in the water so the fish wouldn't eat Qu Yuan's body or to feed his ghost so as not to torment them. They rowed their dragon boats and threw in their rice dumplings, beating drums to scare away unwanted apparitions, or to scare away the fish from devouring his drowned corpse.

At this time of year it is quite common for the parents of my students to shower me with these green triangular rice dumplings called Zhong-zi 粽子. There are a variety of fillings, of course hard to digest, sticky starchy rice, sometimes egg yolks, peanut, black mushrooms, chestnuts, jujube, pork.... I like them, (Z doesn't), but I couldn't eat them everyday, they stick to the inside of my gut. I put the extra in my freezer for when I don't want to cook too much and just steam it (followed  by a nice soup to wash it down).

There is also the other suicide legend of a young girl Tsaou Er's father who drowned in the river. For 17 days she mourned his death and then on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month she threw herself into the river and also drowned.

One more theory holds that the festival originated from the taboo of evil days and the five poisons. At this time of year, people would fall sick either to poison snake bites, scorpions, centipedes or summer related illnesses. Traditionally, the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar is held as an inauspicious one since the forces of "ying" and "yang" is considered to be imbalanced during this period. This is associated with a legend when someone hung the herbs Artemesia (Mugwort) and Acorus (Calamus) on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month,  and the village was spared some epidemic disease. So people starting hanging these plants around their doors to dispel poison insects, pests and contagious diseases. This evolved into putting the powders of these herbs into handmade satchels called Xiang Bao (香包) to be worn around the neck.

Xiang bao nowadays, Sponge Bob and Angry Bird among the zodiac animals

Some mothers will put a smudge of this yellow medicinal powder on their child's forehead or nose to dispel disease (hand foot mouth?) and probably mosquito's. A mother of one of my students did this to her daughter. In Europe during the Middle Ages Mugwort was also used as a magical plant and herb against insects and disease. It is still used in traditional Chinese medicine in moxibustion, which is when the herb is lit, the heat releasing its medicinal properties at specific locations of the body (which for my constitution have never needed, unlike cupping, blood lettings and acupuncture). When I lived in Seoul, the neighborhood bathhouse I regularly went to had several pools infused with Mugwort.It kind of smells like marijuana when its lit and can be smoked. In Ayurvedic medicine it is used for anxiety or dis-ease. (I can ramble forever about plants so better stop myself here.)

Most likely, like all ancient civilizations, this festival had long existed in many other parts of China as marking the first harvest along with Sun  and Snake worship.  Dragons were venerated and worshipped by farmers as controlling the rains, so giving offering of rice dumplings would hopefully endear the dragons to rain on their crops. With increased interaction between people of different regions these festivals eventually got merged and became an independent celebration. Both the Sun and Dragons are associated with masculine energy, the yang aspect. Dragons have traditionally been associated with the Imperial family and specifically the Emperor called “Real Dragon and Son of Heaven.” The five claw-dragon was a symbol of the imperial court. Emperors placed dragon symbols on robes to thrones to flags and everything in between. (Perry, 1966, Lord of the Four Quarters; Myths of the Royal Father, Chapter 5).

The day of the Dragon Boat Festival, traditionalists will fill a glass pitcher of water and let it bask in the sunlit window all morning. Then at 12 noon proceed to wash the body with this super charged yang water. The belief is that this sun water will infuse the body with radiant health for the next year. Also at noon, the sun's energy is so strong that it is said an egg can balance on its head. So today Z and I did a little science experiment and we tried it. I was skyping my folks and wasn't paying attention to the time so I was five minutes past. At 12:05 the egg did not balance. Later at the tea shop their TV was showing the news where hundreds of people successfully were balancing eggs. I was surprised (and just a little jealous). The news then cut to a scene of huge plastic water containers basking in the sun being delivered by truck to customers.

The number 5 has a special significance in Chinese cosmology (Perry 1966) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (read any Mantak Chia books for detailed information). There are 5 elements,  that correspond to 5 directions/ 5 organs (yin and yang), 5 emotions, 5 seasons and 5 flavors:

Organ/Element/ number/polarity /Colour /Season /Consciousness /Emotion/Flavor

Spleen /Earth /5/10 /Tao yellow late summer/ I / intelligence /worry/sweet

Lungs/Metal 4/9 /senior yang/white/autumn Po /corporeal soul /sadness/spicey

Liver/Wood 3/8- junior yin/green or blue /spring /Hun - spiritual soul /anger/sour

Heart/Fire 2/7 / junior yang /red /summer/ Shen - Spirit /joy/bitter

Kidneys/Water/ 1/6 senior yin/ black/ winter/ Zhi - will/fear/salty

Dragons themselves are deeply rooted in Chinese legend. The Chinese creation myth centers around a half snake half human brother and sister who survived a global flood. To regenerate the human race they became  husband and wife. The mythical god/hero  Fu Xi  (伏羲) and his goddess/sister Nu Wa  (女媧 ) themselves are the descendants of  semi-human creatures with snake bodies. She is the goddess who created men, animals and repaired a rupture in the wall of heaven. He is said to be the inventor of writing, the I-Ching and the Bagua.  Over time they evolved  into bodies with animal legs, a horse mane, a rat tail, deer hooves, dog claws and fish scales and  thus became dragons (Perry 1966). Perhaps their story evolved from the worship of snakes often represented as Naga, half human half cobra found in Tibet and SE Asia. (I have some Naga photos from my Cambodia trip here.)

As for our experience of the Dragon Boat races, we arrived in Tainan in July 2008 so we missed that year's Dragon Boat festival. The 2009 Dragon Boat weekend we checked out the boats in the Anping canal and then made our way to Nantou. Last Dragon Boat Festival we went to Green Island (photo here). This year we parked by the aboriginal cultural center and walked a few paces to the canal. Z bought a black Angry Bird Xiang Bao and we got a pretty decent spot  by the water to catch a few races. We didn't stay long, its like a big, crowded night market, but Z enjoyed the races. We caught a few aboriginal dances before the sky poured on us and left home early.

2009 Dragon Boat Festival


Mantak Chia (on Taoism and Tai Chi)
(Perry, 1966, Lord of the Four Quarters; Myths of the Royal Father, Chapter 5).

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