In the spring of 2012, I traveled to Zi Gui during the Dragon Boat Festival. Zigui is a small unremarkable town in the mountains of The Three Gorges. The Three Gorges is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. Before the dam was completed, creating a massive reservoir, archeologists raced to excavate ancient relics, tombs, and centuries-old villages before they were submerged by the artificial lake. Zigui is famous for being the hometown of a the ancient poet Qu Yuan. We was a civil servant around the year 200A.D. He opposed certain political unions and was punished for his criticism of the powers that be, He was exiled for his efforts and reclined to a life of poetry. He was prolific and is considered China's first great poet. He eventually committed suicide by jumping in the Miluo River. Only since 2008 have the Chinese made a national holiday celebrating the festival. The festival included feasts which are not without zong zi. They are sticky rice bundles wrapped in bamboo leaves. Some stories say that the zong zi represent an offering to the spirit of Qu Yuan. It is not unlike leaving flowers on his grave except that his grave is a watery one. The bundles are carefully wrapped carefully to protect against hungry fish stealing the offering.
He was the victim of political subterfuge and is seen as a hero who did everything he could to put country before everything else. This short video below describes the complicated drama that unfolded in his time.
But why are dragon-shaped boats raced on this holiday commemorating the death of one of China's great poets? It seems unrelated. There seems to be a case of superimposing one tradition of a dominant culture on top of the another culture. In the same way that early Christians sucked the life out of pagan holidays in the west, early Chinese cultures were reimagined in the eyes of the Confucian belief:
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 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 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. As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.
In 2012 we took the two-hour bus ride up through the mountains to visit the temple and maybe get lucky to see some of the festivities.
I was sitting in the front of the bus, and so, I was in full view of a mother dog testing the road for her gang when our bus approached. She was eyeing the road, in the direction we were heading. She couldn't see us. I saw it happening before the driver hit her. Most of the other passengers only notices when they felt a bump under he tires. It was pretty awful.
We arrived in the morning to see workers tearing down the stages and stacking chairs from an event that happened the night before. We arrived on the second say of the holiday just after the evening performances and a day just before the traditional boat race.
We had to step over foam roman columns and stay clear of scaffolding as it was brought down
The temple was recently built. It had been rebuilt after the original temple had to be replaced due to the dam project. From the temple, the dam was in full view. Holding the title as the world's largest hydroelectric dam, I was expecting something more impressive, but it was just a long low slab of concrete creating a huge reservoir which submerged countless ancient relics, historically important buildings, temples to the ancients, and numerous villages,
We toured around the temple and called it a day.