Duanwu Jie (端午节), or Dragon Boat Festival, is said to have originated in commemoration of the noble suicide of poet/official Qu Yuan roughly 2,300 years ago. The villagers who witnessed his death so respected the man that they raced in their boats to retrieve his body. Others threw balls of glutinous rice (Zongzi) into the river to distract the fish, and keep them from eating his body. According to my co-workers, “It’s just a holiday,” and they struggled to tell me even this much about the festival. Later they added that “Qu Yuan was very patriotic,” in that he loved his country so much he would rather die than see it destroyed.
The story of Qu Yuan’s death isn’t only about patriotism; the poet had felt utter despair over the state of his nation which he saw as plagued by corruption. As Qu Yuan recorded in his epic poem “Li Sao” (which my co-workers knew of, but had not read),
“I longed to see them yielding blossoms rare,
And thought in season due the spoil to share.
I did not grieve to see them die away,
But grieved because midst weeds they did decay.
Insatiable in lust and greediness
The faction strove, and tired not of excess;
Themselves condoning, others they’d decry,
And steep their hearts in envious jealousy.”
Duanwu Jie, in this light, is the commemoration of an honest man in an age of corruption who committed suicide as a way of protesting injustice.
This aspect is mentioned in some of the articles written by People’s Daily about the holiday (although this year’s coverage is still ramping up). It’s interesting in that it could be seen as very risky to celebrate a man of such strong convictions at a time when many view the Party as corrupt. However most of the articles instead focus on Dragon Boats (1,2) and Zongzi (1,2,3)*, the physical celebration of the holiday over the meaning of it. According to my co-workers this is the part of the holiday they know best.
This year though, the past and the present are colliding. On June 6th, dissident Li Wangyang was found hanging in his hospital room under suspicious circumstances, and many are claiming that he was “suicided” by local police. Like Qu Yuan, Li Wangyang had had a vision of a more just China being torn away from the people by corrupt officials. In 1989, amid the student protests in Beijing, Li continued his push for workers’ rights in Hunan. Even after the violence of June 4th, Li organized a memorial strike in Shaoyang. For this he spent over 20 years in prison, longer than any other protester involved.
Many have questioned his supposed suicide, given that it happened just two days after an interview with him aired in Hong Kong in which he detailed some of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the state, and called for vindication of those who had been killed 23 years earlier. Li’s suspicious death led to an online campaign by dissidents in China to publicly proclaim that they would never commit suicide and sparked a massive protest in Hong Kong.
Qu Yuan’s epic ends with a short epilogue:
“Since in that kingdom all my virtue spurn,
Why should I for the royal city yearn?
Wide though the world, no wisdom can be found.
I’ll seek the stream where once the sage was drowned.”
Qu Yuan is remembered for his willingness to die out of despair for his country. This Duanwu Jie though, I’ll be remembering Li Wangyang, whose life was taken because of his hope for his fellow countrymen.
*Every Chinese holiday, there is a photo spread of foreigners and Chinese soldiers making traditional foods.