The Dragon Boat Festival, or "Duan Wu", is
one of the major festive events in China. If you are not too familiar with
Chinese history and culture, the unique name of the festival must have left
you guessing and wondering whether the festival has really got anything to
do with dragons? Let us take you on a brief trip through the fascinating
history of the Chinese Dragon and their association to the "Duan Wu"
festival. This is a trip you are sure to enjoy. If you want to refer this
article to anyone, just click here.
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Dragons have a long
association with Chinese history and culture. Unlike the dragons in
European mythology which are depicted as standing on four legs and
supposed to be evil and unholy, Asian dragons are regarded as
wholesome and benevolent, and thus worthy of veneration, not
slaying. In Chinese tradition, dragons are symbolic of good fortune.
In China, the Imperial Dragon ("Lung" in Chinese), is regarded as
the primary of four beneficent spiritual animals, the other three
being the phoenix, the unicorn and the tortoise.
In primitive days, the Chinese people considered their Emperors to
be human embodiments of "The Imperial Dragon" or the "Son of
Heaven". As if to support this belief, the Chinese Emperors used to
sit on a dragon throne, ride in a dragon boat and sleep in a dragon
bed. Hsi, the first emperor of China, was said to have a dragon's
tail. Shen Nung, his successor was supposed to have been fathered by
a dragon. Even the commoners here liked to refer to themselves as
"dragons", drawing a parallel between their strength and the power
and vitality of the dragon. Even today, many Chinese people often
use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" as a sign of their ethnic
identity. To them, the dragon stands for the masculine principle or
"yang" in the Chinese ideology of harmony.
The Chinese dragon has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power
in Chinese folklore and art. In ancient days, it was drawn as having
the head of a horse, the body of a snake, wings of a bird and four
or five legs. If it was an Imperial Dragon, it was shown as having
five claws on each foot; otherwise it would only be four claws. In
modern times, the Chinese dragon (or Oriental dragon) is portrayed
as a long, scaled, snake-like creature with four legs - each of them
having five claws.
In China dragons are known as "Lung" and supposed to be the
controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds, the clouds and the
places of the Gods. As per Chinese culture, there are four main
kinds of Lung - The Celestial Dragon ("Tien-lung", who supposedly
protects the places of the Gods), the Spiritual Dragon ("Shen-Lung",
who is said to control the wind and the rain), the Earth Dragon
("Ti-Lung", believed to be the controller of rivers and water bodies
on the Earth) and the Underworld Dragon ("Fut's-Lung", thought to be
the guardian of precious metals and gems).
Chinese mythology counts at least five Sea-dragon Kings as part of
the Chinese pantheon. These divine immortals were later adopted by
Chinese emperors as the imperial emblem and thus the dragon evolved
to become a symbol of power, wealth and prosperity.
The tradition of dragon boat racing during the annual Chinese Dragon
Boat Festival is believed by many to have started as a way to
appease the "Shen-Lung", the benevolent spirit of the wind and the
rain. The ancient Chinese, most of whom were involved in agriculture
and highly dependent on the weather for their livelihood, worshipped
the dragon during the Summer Solstice with requests for a balanced
rainfall. The boat festival has always been held during the same
period, after the spring planting, when people had time to relax and
needed rain for their crops. The race of the dragon-shaped boats
during this festival represented a real dragon fight in the heavens,
and was meant to appease the Dragon deity to avert misfortune and
calamity and bring in rainfall to the earth which is always
necessary for the fertility of the crops and thus ensure the
prosperity of the agrarian way of life. The Chinese believed that
paying a homage to the River Dragon would protect them from its
The erudite Chinese scholar and poet Professor Wen Yiduo (1899 –
1946) once theorized that the "Duan Wu" celebrations were originally
held to mark the birthday of the dragon, which according to a
traditional Chinese belief, falls during the period of Summer
Solstice (which is also the time of observance of the Dragon Boat
Festival). He indicated that the close association of the festival
with dragon may be due to the fact that two of the most important
activities of the festival, dragon boat racing and eating zongzi,
are related to dragon.