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June 6, 2011

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Lost traditions

THE popular story about the Dragon Boat Festival says that it commemorates the death of patriotic poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who drowned himself in the Miluo River after hearing that his country had been defeated.

That was in the Chu State in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).

Qu indeed was a real person but folk experts say that his tale is only part of the story. The observances associated with the festival started long before Qu was born.

The festival known as duan wu (fifth day of the fifth lunar month) started as a day to wish for good health and long life. The fifth lunar month is when it gets hot and insects, pests, disease and plague were common. Poor sanitation made it worse.

Hence, the day was filled with many activities to clean the house, kill insects and dispel illness.

These activities were carried on for thousands of years and became traditional customs. Some are practiced around the country, while others are specific to certain areas.

Making and hanging silk scent bags is one of the most common. The bags contain herbs like cang shu (Chinese atractylods), wormwood, sweet-flag leaves (calamus) and others that help dispel insects and refresh the mind.

It is also common to paste pictures of Zhong Kui, a legendary Chinese ghost-catcher, at the front doors to scare away evil spirits.

Since children were most vulnerable, they were given baths in water boiled with medicinal herbs.

Women were considered more likely to carry illness than men, so in some areas women were required to stay home for the entire day.


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