Duanwu Festival at a Taoist temple

ethnic china

Duanwu Festival at a Taoist temple

Last Saturday I received news that during the Duanwu festival there would be a small ceremony at the Zhenqing Taoist temple. According to the information received throughout the day, there would be different cultural activities, including calligraphy, guzhen recital, and tea ceremony, with the highlight being the ceremony in memory of Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan was a minister and poet who lived in the kingdom of Chu, one of the Warring Kingdoms, in China in the fourth century B.C.E. His main work, the Li Sao (The Lament) has been enough to place him in the Olympus of Chinese poetry. Tradition has it that he was the king’s chief advisor, but due to the jealousy of other officials, he was dismissed. With no one to give loyal advice to the sovereign, the kingdom was declining and Qu Yuan, for not seeing the disaster that was coming, was exiled from the capital. One day, seeing that the situation was getting worse and worse, he committed suicide by throwing himself into a river. The fishermen tried to pull out his body in vain, and also, fearful that the fish would eat him, began to hit the water with sticks to scare them.

The Duanwu Festival is precisely celebrated to remember Qu Yuan’s loyalty to his state, and among other activities, dragon boat races are held to remember the fishermen’s beating of the water.

This afternoon the Zhenqing Temple was a bit livelier than usual, well the annex that once housed the Salt Merchants Guild. Men and women in blue Taoist ritual dress were seen in the courtyard. Inside the main hall, that of the Salt Ancestor, a small musical group was tuning their instruments. Then some of the adepts dressed in a yellow ritual costume, and the officiating master wore a purple cloak decorated with dragons.

At the beginning of the ceremony itself, the officiant took from a cabinet a wooden tablet which is a symbol of power, and with it he went to the main place, in the middle of two rows of adepts, before the image of the Yellow Emperor, before whom the whole ceremony will take place. Two other rows behind him served as support. To the rhythm of the music, the believers have been chanting their prayers in honor of Qu Yuan, presenting the wooden tablet every so often in different directions, and performing prostrations with incense in hand. After a while, even the spectators, a dozen or so, also had our incense sticks, and little by little we abandoned our role as spectators, putting away our cameras and integrating ourselves into the ceremony.

Involved almost without realizing it in this ceremony by one of the first patriots of China, I was moved by his sad figure, observing from a distance the decadence of the people among whom he was born. What a fine figure to think of the land of our birth. He is neither a general nor a conqueror, but a poet and a thinker. Does patriotism still have a place in this increasingly internationalized world? I am sorry, but I cannot see it as a sum of flags, four aspects of a common memory, and the joy for the victories of national sports teams.

A small commotion announces that the ceremony is approaching its climax. The officiant gives way to one of the acolytes who places a square paper tube with powerful symbols on it and sets it on fire. As the paper burns, the smoke establishing communication with the spirits beyond, the prostrations in honor of Qu Yuan are renewed. The fire is consumed, the tablet of power is returned to the closet, the officiants go to a small room where they undress their ritual cloaks.

Orderly they leave the temple and place their incense sticks in the censers in the courtyard. After a while, the only thing that remains is the animation of the believers sharing some fruit, admiring the calligraphies of the teachers, or preparing for the activities of the night.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Duanwu Festival at a Taoist temple," in Ethnic China, 23 mayo 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/duanwu-festival-at-a-taoist-temple/.

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