Festivals, Qu Yuan and Zongzi

The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated all over the world among Chinese-speaking communities. It is especially popular in China, as one of its three most important traditional festivals. Often described as a racing event in dragon-shaped boats, it is better known as Duan Wu Festival for the Chinese. Falling on the fifth day of the fifth month by the Chinese lunar calendar, Duan Wu celebrates the Summer Solstice. Dragon Boat or Duan Wu Festival is believed to be mostly connected to a historical figure called Qu Yuan. 

According to the biography in Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) written in the first century BC, 

Qu Yuan (340 to 278 BC) was a righteous minister in the state of Chu. It was during the Warring States Period when seven contending states were fighting for dominance. Qu Yuan regarded the most aggressive state of Qin as the greatest menace and proposed forming an alliance to fight against it. However, kings of Chu as well as officials in the royal court were either intimidated by Qin’s power or deceived by Qin’s promise. Qu Yuan was slandered, alienated and sent on exile. Hearing the defeat of his country, Qu Yuan jumped into Milo River and killed himself on the day of Duan Wu in 278 BC.

Such is its beginnings.

A recent article recognises that several Asian countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, share similar traditions such as eating zongzi and holding dragon boat races. However, in the Chinese culture this festival is associated with Qu Yuan. According to this article, nearby villagers threw rice dumplings into the river to distract fish from eating Qu Yuan’s corpse. They paddled boats and beat drums to scare away evil spirits. 

Other sources have slightly different versions of the story. China held the first Dragon Boat Festival cultural eventin 2004, and the Dragon Boat Festival did not become a national holiday in China until 2008. UNESCO accepted the Dragon Boat Festival as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

t is generally believed in China that Qu Yuan died for his country; that local villagers sailing fishing boats tried in vain to rescue him; and that they threw rice balls into the river to keep his corpse intact. Nowadays, dragon boat and zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, became the trademark of Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi vary in shapes and filling. In northern China, people are more accustomed to sweet varieties, many containing red bean paste and jujubes. People in southern parts of China prefer savoury taste stuffed with meat, yolk, chestnuts, etc.

As a Christian, I cannot help reflecting on this cultural and social event from biblical perspectives and explain how Dragon Boat Festival can lead us to think about Jesus Christ.

The Poet-Statesman versus the Saviour

Qu Yuan, the frustrated politician was more remembered as a poet, the first who acquired individual authorship in Chinese literature. He differed from Jesus Christ, our Saviour, in several ways.

First, Qu Yuan aspired for a sage king to save his state, but Jesus is the King who brings us the Kingdom of God. One distinctive feature of Chinese history is the dynastic cycling. Two Harvard scholars even created a dynastic song to facilitate memorising the sequence of dynasties. Amidst chaos, a persistent theme stood out, whether it was the Confucian notion of Great Union (datong大同) in the six century BC, or philosophical thinking on Great Peace (taiping 太平) a few centuries later. The best hope of intellectuals were sage kings who would rule with justice and bring peace to the world. Qu Yuan was among one of those intellectuals. He set all his hope on kings, and when the hope was gone, he ended his own life in a tragic way. However, as Christians, we put hope in Jesus who is the King of kings and Lord of lords and enjoy Great Peace in the Kingdom of God. 

Second, Qu Yuan lost his life for a kingdom gone, but Jesus sacrificed His life for the Kingdom to come. When Qu Yuan lost his own country, he felt compelled to kill himself in despondency. In contrast, Jesus laid down His life voluntarily to save sinners as part of God’s plan for salvation. Qu Yuan died the day he jumped into the river, never rose again; Jesus died on the cross and rose three days later. Jesus is sitting at the right-hand side of the Father. We remembered Qu Yuan at the festival meal, while we are seated in Jesus in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6) and live in His Holy Spirit.

Third, Qu Yuan died in tremendous worldly sorrow, while Jesus’s death was the epitome of godly sorrow. The Bible teaches us that worldly sorrow brings death while godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). Not only Qu Yuan but also numerous intellectuals following him died such tragic death in deep worldly sorrow over the long history of China. At dark times, when feeling hopeless, intellectuals gave up their lives for the sake of justice and often out of personal disillusionment. Jesus sacrificed His life not because of His own desperation, but for God the Father. His sorrow on the cross was most godly. Once we can feel that sorrow of Jesus’s sacrifice, there is nothing we can do but repent and accept Him.

Another example of godly sorrow was Jeremiah who lived about 300 years before Qu Yuan. In Chinese paintings, Qu Yuan was always depicted as a sad figure, like the weeping prophet. Jeremiah was also not accepted by kings or his people, yet he faithfully spread God’s Word. He prophesised that God would write His Law on our heart (Jeremiah 31:33), and He would forgive us our wickedness and remember our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34). His godly sorrow accompanied with divine messages led sinners to salvation.

Finally, zongzi and Lord’s Supper are completely different symbols for remembrance. People eat zongzi and other delicacies on the Dragon Boat Festival, but Qu Yuan was never the central topic in family reunion feast. In contrast, Christians take the Lord’s Supper solemnly, in remembrance of what Jesus did for us. The moment we break the bread and drink the wine, we remember that Jesus forgave our sins and reconciled us with the just and perfect God. Jesus also reconciled us with each other in His love. Meanwhile, we hold the hope that He will take us to the Great Banquet one day and enjoy eternity with Him. 

Verses of Qu Yuan versus Gospel

Many of Qu Yuan’s poetic verses appear in Chinese textbooks and have been widely quoted in writings, not only by intellectuals but also by young students. His “good news” was to encourage tireless pursuit, to maintain (self) righteousness, and as promoted in China, to love his country and people.

One of the most popular verses is from his signature poem “Lament”, where he wrote,

Long, long had been my road and far, far was the journey; 

I will go up and down to seek.

路漫漫其修遠兮,吾將上下而求索(離騷 Lament)

The verse depicts a soul searching for truth. Qu Yuan asked the Heaven (tian) 172 questions in another poem called “Heavenly Questions” (tianwen天問). It is worth mentioning that three terms were used for God in the oldest book in China, Shang Di 上帝 (Ruler Above), Tian 天 (Heaven) and Shen 神 (spirits). According to Soothill, Heaven was regarded as the impersonal God in comparison to the other two. In quite a doubting and resentful manner, Qu Yuan questioned Heaven’s mysteries. Qu Yuan heard no replies. If only he had called on the name of the LORD (Proverb 18:10)! 

Many intellectuals have described their search for truth quoting Qu Yuan, but often they did not know what they were searching for. However, Jesus proclaims that He is “the way and the truth and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father” except through Him (John 14:6). Jesus is the content and the end of our search, for He alone satisfies our thirst. Another popular verse regarding righteousness resonated with many Chinese intellectuals. Before jumping into the river, Qu Yuan explained to a wise fisherman why he himself was exiled, saying,

For all the world is muddy and I alone am clean;

for all men are drunk and I alone am sober.

舉世皆濁我獨清,眾人皆醉我獨醒 (漁父 The Fisherman)

Such self-righteousness is not rare in Chinese history. In a popular essay from the eighth to ninth century, a notable man of letters praised his own moral character despite the fact that he was living in a shabby dwelling. In another popular essay from the eleventh century, a famous scholar compared himself to lotus that sprang from mud yet stayed untainted. They are both among the most read and quoted lines in Chinese textbooks. In contrast, the Bible teaches that not even one person is righteous (Rom. 3:11a) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In verses 2-3 of Psalm 14, it is said that from God’s perspective, everyone has turned away from Him, and everyone is corrupt and does not do good. The Gospel of Jesus is good news to save sinners, who have nothing to boast except to “boast in the Lord” (Corinthians 1:31). 

Patriotism is the official message generated from the Dragon Boat Festival. In China, Qu Yuan’s patriotism was established through progressive representations since the start of the twentieth century. An interesting study examined how Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a Chinese communist poet, playwright and historian, “transformed traditional understanding to construct an afterlife of Qu Yuan for the nascent People’s Republic of China.” According to this research, Qu Quan was depicted first in 1919 as a romanticist poet in the May Fourth movement, as an embodiment of individualism. In the 1940s, Qu Yuan was presented as a representative of nationalism whose poetry was translated into the vernacular language to the scholarly community. In 1958, Guo created Qu Yuan as the “people’s poet” who should be popularised among the masses. Guo’s approach to represent Qu Yuan was in alignment with the ideology of Mao Zedong (1895-1976) who called on socialist writers and artists to serve the masses in the 1940s and called Qu Yuan his favourite poet in 1950s. 

Christians know Jesus is “the same yesterday today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He is the constant unchanging I AM. His Gospel speaks to the whole world, and more people are accepting Jesus all over the world. He is not our favourite but our only Saviour.

From Dragon Boat Festival to Jesus Christ

Nothing in the world brings transformation of the human heart as profound as the Gospel does. Christians should not only view their culture and society through biblical perspectives, but also take every opportunity to share the Gospel. The Dragon Boat Festival can thus be an opportunity for Christians to shed God’s light.

Firstly, Christians should show that we hold fast to our real identity. We come from different ethnic and national backgrounds inheriting distinct cultures and traditions. However, our real identity is Christian, or more precisely, we are followers of Jesus Christ. We are created by God, corrupted by sins, and saved by His Grace alone. Many of us have experienced the “long and far” seek for Truth. We used to be worshippers of false idols including human, love and marriage, knowledge, and ourselves. We have stumbled, living in flesh and blood. At God’s timing, we come to know His Word, His Cross, and more about who He is. It is liberating to know that in a life and world full of sufferings, Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18). Only after we find our Saviour, are we able to discover who we are. In the persistent search of freedom, we are now free, at last, from the dominion of sins. Wear our precious identity of Christian as a badge of honour. 

Secondly, Christians should demonstrate that we live a life in conformity to Jesus but no others. Jesus is the only perfect model we should follow. To live like Jesus is to live by the Will of God. God wills us to love because He loved us first; God wills us to forgive because He has most graciously forgiven us. A dissident Chinese writer confessed that in his twenty-eight years of “wrestling with God”, he found it hardest to recognise his own sinfulness and God’s unconditional love for His chosen. It is mind-blowing in his culture that someone, fully human and fully God, suffered and died for sinful humans. He could not believe that someone like him who righteously sought freedom and justice and dared to defy the authorities was among the sinful. After knowing the God’s powerful love and forgiveness, he believed and determined to live a life as Jesus did.

Thirdly, Christians should spread the message that true peace comes from Jesus. It is interesting that people tend to avoid saying “Happy Duan Wu Festival” 端午節快樂on this day, instead, they use “Peace and safety be to you” (平安) or “Peace and health be to you” (安康). This is because the month of May by the Chinese calendar is an “evil month” when weather is hot and steamy thus facilitating the spread of infectious diseases. Traditionally, Duan Wu Festival was celebrated to dispel disasters and plagues. For Christians, we always have blessings of peace from the Lord, who says to His disciples, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 21, 26). It is the duty of Christians to spread this message and encourage people to respond to God’s gracious saving plan and find true peace with God and in God. 

Finally, Christians should feel optimistic that, if they think and look carefully, they can find Jesus speaking in their own culture and society. Have faith that Jesus is in all we can see and live because He is the one true God and Saviour. Learn from the Apostle Paul who preached to the sophisticated and proud Athens and dared to say, “you are ignorant of the very thing you worship” (Acts 17:23b). We can all “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27). 

What a blessing it is for Christians to share with the world, through cultural events such as the Dragon Boat Festival, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!

– Sonia Liang, Hobart