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Dragons, dumplings and arsenic wine

THERE'S a lot more to the Dragon Boat Festival than boating and dumplings - it marks ancient midsummer rituals to placate dragons and ward off disease, pests and evil. Tan Weiyun reports.

Racing dragon boats, drinking realgar wine and eating zongzi are traditional activities during the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu), which falls today on the "unlucky" fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

But before proceeding, we must note that legendary realgar wine (yellow wine laced with arsenic sulfide powder) - though exalted in traditional Chinese medicine for expelling toxins and warding off disease - is not widely consumed today, nor is it advised. The spirit is still around, however, favored by some older folks and it symbolizes ancient rituals aimed at fending off infection that arrived with warm weather.

The fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar is sometimes called the Month of Evil or the Month of Poison. And activities associated with Duanwu (fifth day of the fifth month) are aimed at cleansing, purification and ensuring health.

The Dragon Boat Festival is rich with legends, ancient traditions and customs that are forgotten or considered out of date. It dates back more than 2,000 years and scholars still discuss its deepest origins in folk culture.

"This ancient festival is about more than just having zongzi and racing dragon boats," says Zhong Fulan, director of the Shanghai Association of Chinese Folk Culture.

"It has been misread and misunderstood for a long time," says the scholar who has studied folk mythology for almost 30 years.

The best-known story is that the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the death of the patriotic (and unjustly expelled) statesman poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who drowned himself in the Miluo River. He took his own life, the legend goes, after hearing that his country, the Chu State in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) was conquered by the Qin State after the emperor disregarded his sage advice.

It is said that the local people, who admired Qu, threw food into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat his body - this is said to be the origin of the zongzi, dumplings of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. The boats, today's dragon boats, were furiously paddled out either to scare the fish away or retrieve the body - this is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing, a great community effort and demonstration of harmony.

"This is partly true, but definitely not the whole story of the festival," scholar Zhong says. "For many years newspapers, magazines and TV have exaggerated this part for a particular political purpose. The festival has been distorted to some degree and lost its true spirit."

In fact, he says, the Dragon Boat Festival is a holiday for all Chinese people to wish for good health and long life - that's the essence of the observance.

The origins of the festival predate the story about the patriotic poet. Scholars also say the festival has been superimposed on ancient dragon worship and sacrifices to the benevolent dragon that sends rain for crops.

The festival is observed as summer arrives in the lunar month sometimes known as the Month of Evil or Month of Poison. Because of poor sanitation and hygiene, infectious disease and plagues claimed many lives, especially those of children.

"So in this month, ancient people would clean their houses, take baths and they found many traditional ways to kill bacteria and dispel illness, which later became traditions to celebrate the festival," folklore expert Zhong says.

People drank realgar wine, sometimes called "ruby sulphur" because of its color. It was known to ancient physicians around the world as an antidote to poisons and a pesticide. It was also sprinkled around a house, powder was placed where bacteria and insects were common.

The wine itself was drunk by the family and dabbed protectively on children's foreheads.

On their front doors people would paste pictures of Zhongkui, a legendary Chinese ghost-catcher.

At their doorways, people also hung sprays of odiferous, spiky, thorny plants to ward off disease and evil, including wormwood, mugwort, sweet flag-leaves, calamus and other herbs - the sharp tips were considered swords.

They wore small talisman pouches or sachets filled with herbs. Mothers would stitch colorful and fragrant sachets stuffed with realgar powder, mercuric sulfide, wormwood and other herbs and place them on cords around their children's necks to guard them during the Month of Poison. Draw-strings were commonly red, yellow, white, blue and purple, known as the "strings of longevity."

Children would receive boiled-water herbal baths and girls might be bathed in water scented with orchid or other flowers to drive away insects and perfume the children.

Foul-smelling wormwood leaves (ai) are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and burned in moxibustion to dispel cold, clear energy channels, warm the uterus and stimulate menstrual flow. The offensive smell repels insects such as flies and mosquitoes.

There's an old saying "Willow leaves for the Qingming (Tomb-sweeping) Festival and ai leaves for the Dragon Boat Festival."

Houses were thoroughly cleaned around Duanwu and then herbs were hung on the lintel and in the main room.

Ai was also woven with changpu (calamus), garlic and pomegranate into talismanic armbands, bracelets or necklaces to dispel insects and ward off disease.

Today we see still Chinese pharmacies filled with protective red and gold herb sachets and people are snapping them up.

Scholar Zhong from the Shanghai Folklore Association says, "The Dragon Boat Festival celebrates wishes for good health and long life. Paddling out in boats to retrieve the poet's body shows mutual care and help and respect for life. That's the essence of the festival."


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