The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duan Wu Festival, is a long-established celebration in Chinese culture. It is on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. The word Duan means beginning and the word Wu means warmth. It is the day that marks the beginning of summer and a day for driving out evil spirits. It is also a reminder for the moral values of loyalty, filial, integrity and righteousness.

Below are a few myths and legends about the festival.

Prehistorical Totem festival

A tribe called Baiyue from the Neolithic period located in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, worshipped dragon totems and regarded themselves as offspring of dragons. It is believed that the customs and rituals of the Dragon Boat festival originated from this tribe as it was part of their ancestor worship ceremonies.

The story of Wu Zixu (559- 484 BC)

Wu Zixu was a general of the Wu kingdom during the Spring and Autumn period. He was highly respected within the state of Wu as he assisted Helu of Wu to defeat the state of Chu. Fuchai of Wu succeeded on the throne after the death of his father, Helu of Wu. The king of Yue, Goujian surrendered to the newly appointed king during the battle between Yue and Wu. Fuchai rejected Wu Zixu’s idea of killing Goujian. He listened to the words of a traitorous officials and released Goujian to the state of Yue. He commanded Wu Zixu to commit suicide and threw his body into the Qiantang River on the fifth day of May in 484 BC. The state of Wu was eliminated by the Yue army led by Goujian in 473 BC. Therefore, the Dragon Boat Festival also commemorates the loyalty of Wu Zixu.

The story Qu Yuan (340-278 BC)

According to the chapter of "Biography of Qu Yuan" in the "Records of the Grand Historian" written by Sima Qian, Qu Yuan was a minister of King Huai of Chu during the Warring States period. He advocated appointing people according to their integrity and ability and urged the King to ally with the state of Qi to fight against the state of Qin.

However, his advice was strongly opposed by the nobles, which eventually led to his dismissal and exile. During his exile, he wrote several influential poems that are still highly regarded until today, such as Li Sao, Tian Wen, and Jiu Ge. He used these poems to convey his patriotic thoughts and devastation from witnessing his beloved motherland invaded by the Qin army in 278 BC. Despite this, he refused to abandon his motherland. On the 5th of May, after completing his masterpiece Huaisha, he committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River.

The people of the state of Chu were quite moved by Qu Yuan’s patriotic actions that they congregated near the Miluo River to mourn Qu Yuan’s death and pay tribute to him.

The fishermen attempted to retrieve his body by rowing their boats up and down the river. One fisherman started throwing rice balls and eggs into the river to prevent Qu Yuan’s body from being eaten by hungry fishes, crabs, and lobsters. Other people followed suit and started doing the same.

An old herbalist poured realgar wine into the river—a ritual for calming the water dragon and other aquatic beasts in the river to prevent them from harming Qu Yuan.

Since then, the customs of dragon boat racing, eating rice dumplings, and drinking realgar wine happens on the fifth day of May every year to commemorate the patriotic poet, Qu Yuan.

The myth of Cao E (130- 143 BC)

Another legend of the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the Eastern Han Dynasty's filial daughter Cao E who saved her father, who drowned in the river and whose body was lost for several days. At that time, Cao E was only fourteen years old and was crying along the river every day and night. On the fifth day of May, which was seventeen days after her father’s drowning, she decided jump into the river to keep her father company. Three days later, she was found holding her father's body near the river.

Her story was then passed on as a myth and praised by the people. They built Cao E Temple to commemorate Cao's filial piety. The village she lived in and the river mentioned above are also named after her.