Xi Jinping, in recent years always has stressed innovations of traditional culture as this is a strategy to instill courage and confidence in Chinese people and enable the world to better learn about China.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first Asian superhero film, pulled in $56.2m globally three days after its release. In 2020, Mulan, Disney’s live-action movie based on Chinese folklore, was released globally and was nominated in the 2021 Academy Awards.
In a world “threatened” by globalization, many people argue that cultural security is as important as food security or defence security. They believe it is the values of traditional Chinese culture give the country enduring strength while other ancient civilization vanished in history.
Tradition Chinese culture can shape national identity. As a significant part of the Chinese traditional culture, in history, every dynasty highly emphasized the spirits of the Dragon Boat Festival. So, why is this ancient festival still widely celebrated after centuries of history?
As China becomes an economic power, Chinese culture also challenges the world long dominated by Anglo-American culture. People worldwide are also celebrating Chinese festivals such as the Spring Festival, one of China’s most important festivals.
Except for the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn festival, represented by red envelopes and Chinese lanterns, there is another famous festival celebrated widely in China and the Chinese community in many countries—the Dragon Boat Festival. You may never hear this before, but you may have seen the Chinese dragon, the symbolic pattern of Chinese culture. It is also one of the traditional festivals that people can enjoy national holidays. In addition, more attention has been paid to this festival by the Chinese government in recent years.
The Dragon Boat Festive is on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (usually in June). During the festive period, the most common ritual practice is dragon boat competitions held in southern China because this region is abundant with rivers. People from this region also have zongzi, a festive food with local uniqueness.
What makes the Dragon Boat Festival different from others is that this festival is originated in southern China more than 2000 years ago but celebrated widely across the country. In every part of China, there are no specific theories about the origins of the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festive. So, how has this festival only celebrated by some tribes become a national event today? Why is it still matter so much for modern China?
“Worldliness and political nature are two characters of Chinese culture,” said Yonghong Chen, professor of Ancient Chinese Literature, Guangzhou University.
“Chinese people do not have a strong sense of religion. We believe human power is more useful than god. We can make life better by working hard.” Almost every Chinese traditional festival is closely related to people’s daily life. The Spring Festival celebrating a new year to come means people can start to plant new crops. In the Mid-Autumn Festival, people make mooncakes and use fruit as offerings, celebrating a good harvest.
There are geographical and climatic reasons that can explain the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival. Southern Chain is in subtropical zoon where summer is hot and humid and with high rainfall throughout the year, rivers and ponds are everywhere. Therefore, boats are the primary transport in this region.
It is believed that the primary purpose of this festival is to educate people about epidemic prevention because such a climate is suitable for crops to grow and creates a favourable environment for harmful bacteria, viruses, poisonous animals, and insects.
The fifth lunar month is the hottest period with the highest rainfall, and people are easier to get sick. Moreover, long rainy days often lead to natural disasters like floods and lead to natural disasters like floods, landslides, and crop loss. For these reasons, people think the fifth month is the unluckiest.
In Chinese culture, the dragon represents bravery, strength, and power. Ancient people believed that racing boats with dragon figureheads could exorcise evil spirits and bring good luck. Besides, people also hang wormwood at their door, an edible Chinese medicine often used as an insecticide and burnt to sanitize.
Patriotism is the central theme of commemorating Qu Yuan (340BC—278BC) in China today. After he suicided in the Miluo River, his commemoration became the primary event of the Dragon Boat Festival.
Qu Yuan, together with Francois Rabelais, Mikołaj Kopernik, José Julián Martí Pérez are four cultural celebrities in the world. His ideology has a profound influence on the development of Chinese culture.
Qu Yuan was a Chinese poet and politician in the State of Chu during the Warring States period. The territory of the State of Chu was south of the Yangtze River, the birthplace of the dragon boat culture. Qu Yuan was also a member of the royal family who served as a minister in high office.
During his time, the state was under the threat of an increasingly powerful state of Qin. Qin lied to Chu that with the alliance of Qin and Chu, they could conquer other countries. Qu knew it was a lie, so that he strongly opposed the alliance. However, inept and treacherous officials controlled the state, who banished Qu and even accused him of treason. Therefore, Qu Yuan was exiled.
During his exile, he wrote a large number of poetries to express his worries about his homeland. Twenty-eight years later, Ying was captured by Qin. So desperate that Qu drowned himself in the Miluo River.
“The Dragon Boat Festival may exist long before Qu Yuan. Because rivers and ponds are a basic condition for people to have water sports,” said Professor Chen.
“Confucius heavily influenced the State of Chu. Qu Yuan was no exception. Politics is of the top priority in China since ancient times. Confucius said, ‘Scholars aspire to Tao.’ ‘Tao’ means the road, rule, and the origin of everything. He advocated scholars to apply their knowledge to social governance.”
In the late Warring States period, the State of Chu was under the significant threat of the State of Qin, a fast-growing powerful state. The State of Chu lost many wars to the State of Qin, so the Chu had to cede its territory and lose Ying, the capital city of the Chu.
Qu Yuan hoped he could change the country by advising the king to recruit talents and allied with other states against the State of Qin. However, some inept and treacherous officials governed the state. They banished Qu and even accused him of treason. He was sentenced to exile by the king. During his exile, he wrote a large number of poetries to express his worries about the states. Twenty-eight years later, the Qin captured Ying. So desperate that Qu drowned himself in the Miluo River.
He was so beloved by the people of the State of Chu. So, to prevent fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body, people made zongzi, a kind of food, and threw them into the water by rowing dragon boats.
“Ancient Chinese scholars believed the value of their lives was on the governance of the country. Therefore, they put all their efforts into politics, and they expressed their political stands through literary works,” said Professor Chen.
In fact, during the Warring State Period, it was prevalent to see scholars leave the state they were born in and serve other states. Even many of them were willing to help other kings fight with their mother states.
However, Qu Yuan decided not to do so. He would rather kill himself than work for other states. His love and loyalty for his state are what Confucianism advocates.
Confucianism became the dominant ideology since Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD). Patriotism is one of the essential elements of it. By emphasizing the significance of patriotism and loyalty to the emperor, he could maintain social stability and fight against the invasion.
At this point, Qu Yuan is an ideal person to show the virtue of patriotism. He advocated for the government to use talents regardless of their social status, defending the territorial integrity and hoped both emperor and official should have good virtues. These thoughts meet the political need of every dynasty, so Qu Yuan became the key celebrity for people to commemorate in the Dragon Boat Festival.
During the 1930s-1940s, when China was under the invasion of Japan, the story of Qu Yuan was widely told by scholars and the government to emphasize patriotism among people. After founding the People’s Republic of China, the government hoped the people could have good physical health to build the country effectively. As a well-known sports event that can continue to educate people about patriotism, the dragon boat race became a national sport when China decided to start its sport undertaking.
Patriotism is an eternal topic in China, and even today, we can see slogan about it everywhere in China. One example is: “Because we have our nation, therefore, we have our home.”
Chinese people become more confident as the comprehensive national strengthen of their country has remarkably increased. They believed Anglo-American culture is not superior to its culture, and it is time to build up cultural confidence.
In recent years, television programmes about traditional culture such as A Bite of China，The Chinese Poetry Competition and National Treasure have been trendy among young people. Nowadays, wearing traditional Chinese costumes is very common. However, it was odd just a few years ago. The CCP also notice the importance of promoting traditional Chinese culture. President Xi is the first CCP leader to give a speech in commemoration of Confucius’ birth and has visited the birthplace of Confucius, which shows his mind to reviving traditional culture and increase China’s influence on culture internationally.
“Chinese culture focuses more on the real world rather than the afterlife. Confucius said, ‘how can you know what death is without knowing what real life is?’ Understanding our life today is never an easy thing,” said Professor Chen.
Nowadays, China faces more conflicts outside the country. Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival at the national level meets the needs of people and corresponds with the political condition. It also shows China’s determination to reassert it equal to the dominant Angle-American one as a civilization.
“Qu Yuan advocated that government officers should love and care for people, and each should have good virtue, so his thoughts are adopted by every dynasty even today,” said Professor Chen.