Many Western holidays are celebrated to honor saints or other religious figures. Few if any are held to commemorate poets. The Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is held each year in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia to honor the poet and statesman Qu Yuan.
Qu Yuan lived over two thousand years ago during China’s Warring States Period. He was a supporter of the Chu kingdom and served it faithfully for many years. However, corrupt ministers, jealous of Qu, turned the king against him, and Qu was banished from his home. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote many famous poems expressing his love for his country. Many years later, the capital of the Chu kingdom was captured by the armies of its great rival, the Qin kingdom. In despair, Qu Yuan waded into the Milo River and drowned himself. The local villagers, who greatly admired the poet, raced out in their boats to try and save him. However, they were too late. To make sure that the fish would not eat his body, they threw balls of sticky rice into the water.
In remembrance of the villagers’ actions, every year people take part in dragon boat races on local rivers and lakes and also eat zongzi—sticky rice dumplings made with glutinous rice, meat, and mushrooms wrapped in bamboo leaves. Taiwan’s annual dragon boat races have become popular internationally, and teams from all over the world flock to the island to take part. Another Dragon Boat Festival tradition is the wearing of perfumed pouches. These colorful pouches are filled with a fragrant powder made from Chinese herbs and are worn by children to drive away evil spirits. This custom probably began because diseases and plagues were common during the midsummer months. Nowadays, however, they are worn simply for decoration.