Dragon Boat Festival and moral abduction

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Called Duānwǔ jié 端午節 / 端午节 in Chinese, this year (2022) it occurred on Friday, June 3.

Below, I will discuss in detail the names, origins, and customs surrounding this widely and exuberantly celebrated festival.  Unfortunately, recently there has been some controversy over how to greet people on this day.  There seems to be a lot of online discussion as to whether

Duānwǔ jié kuàilè
"Happy Duanwu Festival!"


Duānwǔ jié ānkāng
"[May your] Duanwu Festival [be filled with] well-being"

is the appropriate greeting for the festival, including debate about the more recent use in China (less so in Taiwan) of the latter.

Some representative angry comments directed at a colleague in Taiwan by China netizens after he wrote the former:

Duānwǔ jié láiyuán shì jìniàn àiguó shīrén Qū Yuán de, suǒyǐ bùnéng shuō kuàilè, wǒmen cháng shuō de shì ānkāng.
"The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan, so we can't say happiness, we often say well-being."

Duānwǔ jié shì huáiniàn sǐwáng zhě, rúguǒ nǐ zài huáiniàn nǐ yǐ gù de qīnrén nǐ huì hǎo kuàilè shì ma?
"Dragon Boat Festival is to cherish the dead; if you cherish your deceased relatives, would it be right for you to be happy?"

As one can see, part of this view is because Duanwu is said to revere "nationalist poet" Qū Yuán 屈原 (c. 340 BC – 278 BC).  One wonders if this is a recent trend and / or how much is government driven.

These remarks from a history professor in Guangzhou indicate that the debate over how to greet people on Duanwu Festival have been going on for at least a couple of years:

I read about this controversy around two years ago. I think this view that Duanwu memorializes Qu Yuan might come from certain people who try to defend and revitalize Chinese tradition and boycott foreign influence, similar to boycotting Christmas in China. Apparently “happy / merry XX-Day” is a Western expression, and not from China. In ancient China, there were different ways to express greetings for festivals. But for the Duanwu case, memorializing Qu Yuan is definitely not the only theme for this festival in East Asia. There are many discussions and research on the Duanwu festival, and some places having this festival didn’t use it to commemorate Qu Yuan.

Now, turning to "Duanwu":

The name refers both to the original day of the festival, the first seventh-day (午日) in the fifth lunar month (五月) of the traditional Chinese calendar, and the month itself which was also known from its position in the earthly branch cycle as ().

端午   (~節) Dragon Boat Festival, which now occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar   [VHM:  hence the English name "Double Fifth"]


For more detailed explanations of the calendrics and onomastics (including topolectal variants) of the Dragon Boat Festival, see here.

There are various accounts of the origin of the Duanwu Festival.  Here are a few:

The fifth lunar month is considered an unlucky month. People believed that natural disasters and illnesses are common in the fifth month. To get rid of the misfortune, people would put calamus, Artemisia, pomegranate flowers, Chinese ixora and garlic above the doors on the fifth day of the fifth month. Calamus is believed to be able to remove evil spirits because of its sword-like shape and strong garlic smell.

Another explanation to the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival comes from before the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). The fifth month of the lunar calendar was regarded as a bad month and the fifth day of the month a bad day. Venomous animals were said to appear starting from the fifth day of the fifth month, such as snakes, centipedes, and scorpions; people also supposedly get sick easily after this day. Therefore, during the Dragon Boat Festival, people try to avoid this bad luck. For example, people may paste pictures of the five poisonous creatures on the wall and stick needles in them. People may also make paper cutouts of the five creatures and wrap them around the wrists of their children. Big ceremonies and performances developed from these practices in many areas, making the Dragon Boat Festival a day for getting rid of disease and bad luck.

The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty. A cadet member of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the emperor decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.

It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body. This is said to have been the origin of dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan's body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi. [VHM:  see below]

During World War II, Qu Yuan began to be treated in a nationalist way as "China's first patriotic poet". The view of Qu's social idealism and unbending patriotism became canonical under the People's Republic of China after 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War.


Note that customs relating to the balefulness of Duanwu / Double Fifth existed independently and prior to remembrance of Qu Yuan's death.  Moreover, Duanwu / Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated in memory of other regional martyrs who died watery deaths, notably Wu Zixu (died 484 BC) — progenitor of the most distinguished lineage of military strategists — and Cao E (130–143 AD) — the daughter of a shaman.  Note that these traditions are observed primarily in the south (especially the southeast).

Some modern research suggests that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed onto a pre-existing holiday tradition. The promotion of these stories might be encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence in China. The relationship between zongzi, Qu Yuan and the festival, first appeared during the early Han dynasty.

The stories of both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu were recorded in Sima Qian's Shiji, completed 187 and 393 years after the events, respectively, because historians wanted to praise both characters.

Another theory, advanced by Wen Yiduo, is that the Dragon Boat Festival originated from dragon worship. Support is drawn from two key traditions of the festival: the tradition of dragon boat racing and zongzi. The food may have originally represented an offering to the dragon king, while dragon boat racing naturally reflects a reverence for the dragon and the active yang energy associated with it. This was merged with the tradition of visiting friends and family on boats.

Another suggestion is that the festival celebrates a widespread feature of east Asian agrarian societies: the harvest of winter wheat. Offerings were regularly made to deities and spirits at such times: in the ancient Yue, dragon kings; in the ancient Chu, Qu Yuan; in the ancient Wu, Wu Zixu (as a river god); in ancient Korea, mountain gods (see Dano). As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.


A key observance of the Duanwu Festival is to make and eat a tetrahedral lump of glutinous rice (often with various fillings) called zòngzi 粽子.  Because we have so many serious foodies on Language Log, and also because of the interesting linguistic properties of the terms for it in the various places where it is popular, I will dedicate the following lengthy section to this treat:

Zongzi ([tsʊ̂ŋ.tsɨ]; Chinese: 粽子), rouzong (Chinese: 肉粽; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: bah-chàng) or simply zong (Cantonese Jyutping: zung2) is a traditional Chinese rice dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves (generally of the species Indocalamus tessellatus), or sometimes with reed or other large flat leaves. They are cooked by steaming or boiling. In the Western world, they are also known as rice dumplings or sticky rice dumplings.

As it diffused to other regions of Asia over many centuries, zongzi became known by various names in different languages and cultures, including pya htote in Burmese-speaking areas (such as Myanmar), nom chang in Cambodia, machang in Philippines, bachang in Indonesia, khanom chang in Laos, and ba-chang in Thailand.

Vietnamese cuisine also has a variation on this dish known as bánh ú tro or bánh tro.

In Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Taiwan, zongzi is known as bakcang, bacang, or zang (from Hokkien Chinese: 肉粽; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: bah-chàng; lit. 'meat zong', as Hokkien is commonly used among overseas Chinese). Similarly, zongzi is more popularly known as machang among Chinese Filipinos in the Philippines.

Japanese cuisine has leaf-wrapped glutinous rice flour dumplings called chimaki. They may be tetrahedral, square, rectangular, or long narrow conical in shape.

In some areas of the United States, particularly California and Texas, zongzi are often known as Chinese tamales. [!}

In Mauritius, zongzi (typically called zong), is a traditional dish which continues to be eaten by the Sino-Mauritian and by the Overseas Chinese community. It is especially eaten on the Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional festive event, to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan.

What has become established popular belief amongst the Chinese is that zongzi has since the days of yore been a food-offering to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the kingdom of Chu who lived during the Warring States period. Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried to counsel his king to no avail, and drowned himself in the Miluo River in 278 BC. The kind-hearted Chinese people in the same era as Qu Yuan were grateful for Qu Yuan's talent and loyalty to serve the country. They cast rice dumplings into the Miluo River on the day when Qu Yuan was thrown into the river every year, hoping that the fish in the river would eat the rice dumplings without harming Qu Yuan's body.

Qu Yuan died in 278 BC, but the earliest known documented association between him and the zong dumplings occurs much later, in the mid 5th century (Shishuo Xinyu Chinese: 世说新语, or A New Account of the Tales of the World). [VHM: NB!] And a widely observed popular cult around him did not develop until the 6th century AD, as far as can be substantiated by evidence. But by the 6th century, sources attest to the offering of zongzi on the Double Fifth Festival (5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar) being connected with the figure of Qu Yuan.

As for the origin myth, a fable recounts that the people commemorated the drowning death of Qu Yuan on the Double Fifth day by casting rice stuffed in bamboo tubes; but the practice changed in the early Eastern Han dynasty (1st century AD), when the ghost of Qu Yuan appeared in a dream to a man named Ou Hui (Chinese: 區回, 歐回) and instructed him to seal the rice packet with chinaberry (or Melia) leaves and bind it with colored string, to repel the dragons (jiaolong) that would otherwise consume them. However, this fable is not attested in contemporary (Han Period) literature, and only known to be recorded centuries later in Wu Jun [zh] (呉均; Wu chün, d. 520)'s Xu Qixieji (『續齊諧記』; Hsü-ch'ih-hsieh-chih).

Also, Qu Yuan had (dubiously, by "folklore" or by common belief) become connected with the boat races held on the Double Fifth, datable by another 6th century source. 《荊楚歲時記》(6th c.), under the "Fifth Day of the Fifth Month" heading. Modern media has printed a version of the legend which says that the locals had rushed out in dragonboats to try retrieve his body and threw packets of rice into the river to distract the fish from eating the poet's body.[


Greetings from Jinyi Cai:

I wrote ānkāng 安康 ("well-being") instead of kuàilè 快乐 ("happy") because this has become the phrase people use nowadays. It is very interesting because I remember clearly it hasn't been that long (probably 4 or 5 years ago?) since people noticed "kuàilè 快乐" is not appropriate for the Duanwu Festival. Because I remember every year people post Duanwu greetings on their WeChat Moments and Weibo, etc. Then someone pointed out that it's Duānwǔ ānkāng 端午安康 instead of Duānwǔ kuàilè 端午快乐. But to be honest, I think people care more about the time of family gathering, celebrating, or having a few days off than about how to greet people. After you pointed it out, I started to think about who first raised this point and why did they do so. It's possible that the government wants to emphasize the historical significance behind the Duanwu festival. But you know, in China somethings / sometimes you just never know.

I hope my reply isn't too late. I am in Shanghai now and just got out of the two months lockdown. Quite an experience!

Greetings from Fredric Ye Tian:

Duānwǔ jié kuàilè 端午节快乐! ("Happy Duanwu Festival!")  I will definitely say "Duānwǔ jié kuàilè 端午节快乐!" To me, using an ungrounded reason to force people to say "Duānwǔ jié ānkāng 端午节安康" is ridiculous. It's another kind of the so-called “moral abduction” (dàodé bǎngjià 道德绑架) that has become popular in recent years in China. This term means "In the name of morality, people use excessive or even unrealistic standards to demand, coerce or attack others, and to influence their behaviors."
People, of course, can say "Duānwǔ jié ānkāng 端午节安康" if they like but you simply can't force other people to say it. 
If you are interested in “moral abduction” in China, here is a revealing post

Summary comment by Zihan Guo:

I sense that it is a recent trend in the past few years. Advocates for Duānwǔ jié ānkāng 端午節安康 deride those who say Duānwǔ jié kuàilè 端午節快樂 for their lack of historical knowledge and understanding, while the latter rebut the former for being too pedantic. I personally do not favor either and am not fastidious enough to denounce either. Some people try to avoid the volatile issue by saying Zòngzi jié kuàilè 粽子節快樂 ("Happy Sticky Rice Dumpling Festival").
The first comment "端午节来源是纪念爱国诗人屈原的,所以不能说快乐,我们常说的是安康。"* made me reflect on the purpose of jiérì 節日 ("festival"), usually to celebrate or commemorate. If it is to celebrate, it would make sense to say kuàilè 快樂 ("happy"). If it is to commemorate, with a sense of respect, then it might not be so appropriate, but then I do not quite understand why people feel compelled to greet others on such an occasion (i.e., Duānwǔ jié 端午節). I might remain silent, which does not mean that I am ignorant of its importance. The origin of Duānwǔ jié 端午節 is also not limited to the figure Qū Yuán 屈原 either. The second comment "端午节是怀念死亡者,如果你在怀念你已故的亲人你会好快乐是吗"** made me think that this debate also has to do with the fundamental perception we hold regarding death, that it should be sad, solemn, and somber. Though we read stories like Zhuangzi (4th c. BC) drumming a basin after the death of his wife and Buddhist teachings on samsara, many still see the topic of death as somewhat taboo.
A Chinese way of greeting should be Chī zòngzile ma 吃粽子了嗎 ("Have you eaten sticky rice dumplings")?

*Copied from above:

Duānwǔ jié láiyuán shì jìniàn àiguó shīrén Qū Yuán de, suǒyǐ bùnéng shuō kuàilè, wǒmen cháng shuō de shì ānkāng.
"The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan, so we can't say happiness, we often say well-being."

**Copied from above:

Duānwǔ jié shì huáiniàn sǐwáng zhě, rúguǒ nǐ zài huáiniàn nǐ yǐ gù de qīnrén nǐ huì hǎo kuàilè shì ma?
"Dragon Boat Festival is to cherish the dead; if you cherish your deceased relatives, would it be right for you to be happy?"

A half-dozen actual felicitations received by a colleague from family and friends in Taiwan (think of each of them as being preceded by "May your…"):

Duānwǔ jíxiáng
"Duanwu [be] auspicious"
Duānwǔ ānkāng
"Duanwu [be filled with] well-being"
Duānwǔ jié kuàilè
"Duanwu Festival [be] happy"
Duānwǔ jiājié yúkuài
"Duanwu Fine Festival [be] joyful"
Duānwǔ jiànkāng píng'ān
"Duanwu [be filled with] health and safety"
Hǎoshì chéngshuāng jiēzòng ér zhì
"[Duanwu have] good things come in pairs and follow on each other's heels"
*zong ("sticky dumpling") is serving as a pun for zhǒng 踵 ("heel")

They are very revealing.  My colleague told me that, in the past, she herself never felt the slightest qualms about wishing people joy and happiness on Duanwu Festival.  Only in the last few years has she begun to feel under pressure to be more subdued and thoughtful and less celebratory on Duanwu Festival.


Taking all the above into consideration, I conclude that the recent tendency to solemnize what used to be a time of celebration and joy is the result of politicization of this festival day, as well as many other aspects of public life, by the current paramount / supreme leader of the PRC as part of his quest to become the first communist emperor of the Central Kingdom and All Under Heaven.  Or did Mao Zedong already do that once?  If so, that would make the current paramount / supreme leader of the PRC the second communist emperor of the Central Kingdom, though Mao never succeeded in becoming the ruler of All Under Heaven writ large.

One thing I can guarantee:  people still get very excited and happy about making and eating zongzi on Dragon Boat Festival.  I had some made by a friend last night.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Ross Darrell Feingold, Grace Wu, Fangyi Cheng, Jing Hu, Xiuyuan Mi, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 9:55 am

    It seems like it would be like saying ‘happy memorial day’, which might be done in a casual sense, even though the holiday does have somber overtones.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 10:19 pm

    random thoughts

    * AFAIK Tw. gōo-ji̍t-tseh is always written “五日節"… but surely "午日節" :D tho' for the alternative name gōo-ge̍h-tsueh, 五月節 should be "right" I guess

    * speaking of which there is the expression "Buē tsia̍h Gōo-ji̍t-tseh tsàng, phuà hiû m̄ kam pàng" 'don't dare X the old lined coat(s) before you've had Duanwu festival zongzi" where "X" is always (?) explained as 'put away' Mand. 收起來… but pàng shouldn't mean 'put away' in say Tw. as this is a northern development; instead it's 'let go / release'… so the original meaning of the expression is instead don't take apart the coats?

    * For the purist, even, say, 新年快樂 on the lunar new year is scandalous… and 快樂 is I suppose a fairly culturally tainted emotion to begin with :P; the Chinese tradition instead aims simply for contentment / good fortune 福 , etc.

  3. wanda said,

    June 9, 2022 @ 12:44 pm

    How do people greet each other on Qingming? Can't think of a more somber holiday than that.
    These things aren't really supposed to make sense. For example, it was clearly not a "Good Friday" for Jesus (and who know what he'd think about all these people wearing a symbol of his torture and death).

  4. pamela said,

    June 11, 2022 @ 4:37 pm

    I like the decorum of 安康

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