Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 21 June 2010

Debate on patriotism and the Duanwu festival

In a new sign of promoting “Confucian culture,” according to an article by Zhu Youke in Southern Weekend, participants at a 7 June meeting of the China Culture Promotion Associaton (Zhonghua Wenhua Cujinhui) in Wuhan debated a suggestion to link the traditional Duanwu festival, on the fifth day of the fifth month, to the promotion of patriotism and specifically to the suicide of the poet Qu Yuan.

Duanwu is commonly associated with eating zongzi, glutinous rice cooked in a leaf, and with dragon boat races (until recently these have been more popular in Hong Kong than in the mainland). Originally, zongzi were used as food sacrifices to keep away the illness-bringing goddess Wenshen, but with time — possibly through imperial scholar-officials uncomfortable with the idolatrous nature of folk beliefs — both zongzi and dragon boats were reinterpreted as homage to Qu Yuan, an official of the state of Chu who drowned himself in the Yangtze. Lately, some “national learning” (guoxue) enthusiasts have been organising ceremonial sacrifices, such as this one by 80 Wuhan University “national learning” students in 2009:


Duanwu is one of seven traditional festivals promoted by the Central Propaganda Bureau and the Central Spiritual Civilization Commission. The list does not include any festivals of China’s ethnic minorities. This year, a dragon boat race was organised in Wuhan — near Qu Yuan’s hometown — to commemorate him for the second time. What made this time different is that Duanwu has since been inscribed in UNESCO’s list of intangible World Cultural Heritage. Accordingly, the ceremony was even more elaborate, complete with a six-metre Qu Yuan statue and20 children reciting Qu’s famous poem Encountering Sorrow.

Not all participants at the meeting were sanguine about equating Duanwu with Qu Yuan, or Qu Yuan with patriotism. Some pointed out that Qu committed suicide out of a general despair over the state of human society, rather than for the sake of his own state, Chu. Scholars interviewed for the article also expressed unease about the governmental appropriation and commodification of traditional holidays and sacrifices.


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