Double Fifth

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Double Fifth (Dragon Boat Festival)

Type of Holiday: Historic, Folkloric, Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar
Where Celebrated: China, and by Chinese communities in the United States and throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Dragon Boats, Five Poisonous Creatures, Hundred Grass Lotion, Mugwort, Red Threads, Rice Dumplings
Colors: Red, azure, yellow, white, black (see RED THREADS )


The fifth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar is known as the Evil or Wicked Moon. The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The CHINESE NEW YEAR takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

The names of each of the twenty-four two-week periods sometimes correspond to seasonal festivals celebrated during the period. Beginning with the New Year, which takes place in late January or early February, these periods are known by the following names: Spring Begins (New Year and LI CH'UN), the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the VERNAL EQUINOX, the Clear and Bright (CHING MING), the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the SUMMER SOLSTICE (Double Fifth), the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew (MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL), the AUTUMN EQUINOX, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the WINTER SOLSTICE, the Little Cold, and the Great Cold.

The fifth moon arrives at a time of year when dry winds and droughts give way to hot, humid weather, creating ideal conditions for the appearance of the FIVE POI SONOUS CREATURES . To ward off these and other evil influences, people offer special prayers to Yao Wang, the King of Remedies, whose image can be seen in every village shrine. Yao Wang has the power to save people who are sick, particularly those suffering from fever. Since hot, steamy weather encourages the growth of insects and the spread of infectious diseases, Yao Wang and the other Gods of Medicine are especially worshipped on the "Dangerous Fifth."

The Feast of the Fifth Month dates back at least 2,000 years, when ceremonies were held around the time of the SUMMER SOLSTICE to ensure that there would be enough rain. In agricultural areas, these ceremonies were held right after the young rice plants had been transplanted and the torrential summer rains were about to begin. They included special rites in honor of the Dragon God, who controlled rivers and rainfall. Early summer was also a time when ancient people tried to please the alligators, who were believed to be possessed by the spirits of the people they'd eaten. If these spirits weren't satisfied, they might take their revenge by spoiling the crops or sending a plague. The Dragon God may have evolved from these earthly monsters.

The DRAGON BOATS that race on this day owe their origin not only to the Dragon God but to a more recent legend. A fourth-century statesman and poet named Ch'ü Yüan was an honest man who tried to expose the corruption of his government. When he realized there was nothing he could do to stop what was going on, he composed a poem cataloging his worries. Then, clutching a huge rock in his arms, he threw himself into the T'ung Ting Lake in Hunan Province. The people organized search parties to go out on the river and search for Ch'ü Yüan, decorating their boats and striking gongs to ward off the evil spirits. But his body was never recovered. In honor of his sacrifice, the people threw rice on the water every Double Fifth

year to feed his ghost. Although Chinese officials have often tried to discourage the dragon boat races, hoping that people will forget the hero who chose to die rather than tolerate corruption, they have never been successful in stamping out this popular holiday.


Dragon Boats

In ancient times, boats were believed to be guided by supernatural powers. The Romans raced boats at their MIDSUMMER DAY celebrations. In fact, water has played an important role in SUMMER SOLSTICE rituals all over the world. Paper or rush boats were often brought down to the beach or riverbank and set on fire so that their "ghosts" would carry off evil influences. The notion that sin, illness, and even death could be loaded on a vessel and sent away was both appealing and widely accepted.

The dragon boat races held throughout South and Central China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan on the Double Fifth may originally have been an attempt to appease the Dragon God so that he would send rain for the crops. People may also have hoped that their battles on the water would induce the dragons of the air to do battle, thus triggering rainstorms. The drums and gongs that were sounded during the races were meant to imitate the rumbling of thunder.

The boats used in these races are long and narrow, suggesting the hollowed-out tree trunks from which they were originally made. They are brightly painted with dragon-like scales and decorated with flags, with a high prow shaped like a dragon's head and a raised stern resembling a tail. A single boat can have as many as 80 rowers, depending on its length. One man stands in the bow, as if searching for the body of Ch'ü Yüan, and pretends to cast rice upon the water. Each boat is accompanied by a small band or a drummer who strikes the beat for the rowers to follow.

The earliest dragon boat races were violent struggles where at least one person had to drown as an offering to the river gods-a human sacrifice to ensure the fertility of the fields. Even as recently as the early 1900s, the annual dragon boat competition was outlawed for a period of time because of the large number of fights and fatal accidents that occurred. Today, dragon boat regattas are rare in Northern China but popular in the south, where rivers and lakes are more numerous. Accidents continue to occur, since the boats themselves are so unstable.

The dragon is one of China's most complex symbols. The Chinese believe that the kingdoms of the world are controlled by dragons whose spheres of influence are re-distributed each year at the beginning of summer. They sleep during the cold, dry season, begin to stir with the first warm weather, and then rise up to the clouds, where they gather in groups and challenge their rivals. These battles result in rain showers. In Chinese art, two dragons are often seen playing together in the clouds with a ball or a pearl, the symbol for thunder.

Five Poisonous Creatures

Many of the superstitions associated with the Double Fifth are designed to ward off the five poisonous creatures associated with this day and with midsummer in general: the snake, the scorpion, the lizard, the toad, and the centipede. Yellow paper charms with pictures of the five creatures are hung over doorways and windows, while young girls wear paper flowers in their hair with images of the creatures on each petal, or hang sachets filled with aromatic herbs (see MUGWORT ) around their necks. Paper dolls representing each member of the family are burned in the hope that they will take away any misfortunes that might be coming their way. Sometimes a cloth boy doll is placed on the gatepost in front of the house as a way of warding off sickness.

Many Chinese burn realgar, a reddish mineral that gives off a yellow smoke and a foul odor that is believed to kill insects. In some areas, old women cut red paper into the shapes of the five creatures and place them, along with a cut-paper tiger, inside a gourd. The belief here is that by containing the poisonous creatures, they will not be able to cause any harm. Their evil influence can also be avoided by eating the cakes that are sold on this day-stamped, of course, with the image of the five poisonous animals. In fact, the wudu motif is so popular that it is embroidered on everything from vests and aprons to backpacks and shoulder bags.

It is interesting to note that the five creatures vary from one part of China to another, depending on the climate and which insects are considered the most bothersome. The spider, for example, often replaces the centipede or the scorpion.

Hundred Grass Lotion

It is a well-known custom in China on the Double Fifth to get up early and walk exactly 100 paces into a field. One hundred blades of grass are picked and brought back to the house, where they are boiled thoroughly in water. The water, which is now believed to possess all the virtues of the grass, is strained, boiled a second time, and stored in bottles as a remedy for headaches, wounds, and nervous diseases. It is called the pai tsao kao or "hundred grass lotion."

This special medicine loses its effectiveness if any part of the ritual involved in gathering and preparing it is not observed exactly as prescribed. And it must be Double Fifth

done on the fifth day of the fifth moon, because this is the only day on which ordinary grass posseses ling-spiritual or health-giving properties.


According to legend, a famous Chinese rebel by the name of Huang Ch'ao gave orders to spare any family that hung mugwort (an aromatic plant whose scientific name is artemisia vulgaris) over its door. But the custom of hanging sprigs of garlic or other strong-smelling plants over doorways is an ancient method of repelling ghosts and demons. Leaves of sweet-flag, which are pointed and resemble swords, are also used to ward off summer odors and insects-a real problem in many Chinese cities lacking adequate drainage systems. Why are such odors considered so powerful? It's important to remember that Buddha himself was cured of sickness by the perfume of a lotus blossom.

The custom of hanging up fragrant herbs in midsummer is popular in the West as well. In Russia, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and other European countries, artemisia is put up on houses and stables to protect them against evil on St. John's Day (June 24, see MIDSUMMER DAY). According to an old French belief, such herbs must be gathered on Midsummer Eve (June 23) if they are to be effective.

On their way back from casting RICE DUMPLINGS on the water in a symbolic search for Ch'ü Yüan, people bring with them branches of mugwort, banyan tree leaves, and sword grass. When stuffed in the cracks of the wooden doorposts, these branches are believed to preserve the household from summer illnesses.

Red Threads

Red is the color of the peach blossom, widely considered to be a powerful protector against demons. Red threads, symbolic of long life, are often tied to the wrists of young boys on the Double Fifth; girls wear these threads or silk ribbons in their hair. Sometimes threads of five colors are used, symbolizing the five elements: wood is azure, fire is red, earth is yellow, metal is white, and black stands for water. The five-colored threads also represent the FIVE POISONOUS CREATURES . The RICE DUMPLINGS thrown into the water in honor of Ch'ü Yüan were originally tied with five-colored threads.

Families give red or multicolored threads as gifts to each other's children. The mother ties them on, but takes them off again after noon on the Double Fifth-a symbolic gesture that represents "throwing away evil."

Rice Dumplings

Sticky rice dumplings known in China as zong zi are associated with the legend of Ch'ü Yüan, whose spirit was not satisfied by the rice being thrown into the river because the river dragon kept eating it. So people started to wrap the rice in palm leaves (zong is a homonym of the written character for "palm") and tie up the opening with multicolored silk thread (see RED THREADS ). Another method was to stuff the rice into tubes of bamboo so the river dragon couldn't eat it before Ch'ü Yüan found it. Nowadays the dumplings are usually wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with a special grass.


Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Casal, U.A. The Five Sacred Festivals of Ancient Japan. Rutland, VA: Sophia University in cooperation with Tuttle, 1967. Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991.


Hong Kong Tourism Board in New York, New York Double Fifth
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Tuan Wu (Double Fifth)

May-June; fifth day of fifth lunar month
The Double Fifth holiday is celebrated throughout China but is most popular south of the Yangtze River. It is also a festive holiday in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and among Chinese Americans. One reason why dragon boat races are often held on this day is that dragon boats are believed to offer protection against disease, particularly for the paddlers. Another reason is that Ch'ü Yüan (c. 343-c. 289 b.c.e.), a renowned minister of the Ch'u kingdom and a famous poet, threw himself into the Mi Lo River on the fifth day of the fifth month. When the people heard about his suicide, they all jumped into their boats and paddled out to save him, but it was too late. So they wrapped rice in bamboo leaves or stuffed it into sections of bamboo tube and floated it on the river to provide sustenance for his spirit. It is traditional to prepare and eat sticky rice dumplings known as zong ze or tzung tzu on this day in honor of the drowned poet Ch'ü Yüan.
Charms made from chunks of incense are used to ward off the so-called "five poisonous things"—which vary in different parts of China depending upon the climate and the local animal life. In Taiwan, for example, the five poisonous things are wall-lizards, toads, centipedes, spiders, and snakes. The charms are made in the shape of these harmful creatures, and sometimes small cakes resembling the creatures are eaten on this day.
Another custom associated with the Double Fifth is the placing of mugwort plants in the doorposts of each house. These branches are supposed to frighten evil spirits away and preserve those living in the house from summer diseases. Those who take a bath at noon on the fifth day of the fifth month are believed to be immune from illness for one year.
See also Dragon Boat Festival
AnnivHol-2000, p. 239
BkFest-1937, p. 79
BkHolWrld-1986, Jun 18
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 206, 1130, 1185
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 326
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 221
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 369
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Asian holidays include the Chinese New Year (which this year fell on January 29); Tet, the Vietnamese New Year (February 7); Asian Pacific Heritage Month (May); and the Chinese Double Fifth Day (May 31).