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Happy ‘Duan Wu’ (Dragon Boat) day – time to scythe your mugwort!

It's time to sharpen your scythe and cut some mugwort because today is Duan Wu Jie or (more popularly globally today) the ‘Dragon Boat Festival’ a festival which falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month after Chinese New year.

Duanwu (端午) literally means 'starting horse' — the horse being the fifth of the twelve animals of the Chinese almanac.  in other words, it’s the first "horse day" of the fifth (horse) month and so the whole horse phenomenon is heavily associated with  (五), 'five', which sounds the same as wu (午) 'horse' which all exerts a heavy influence on the festival not least because five is culturally considered to be a powerful but often unlucky number.

If this isn’t already confusing enough, there are also at least three different myths around the festival’s origins (which probably began at least 2,000 years ago in the Warring States period) and all of them somewhat ominously involve instances of suicide or drowning (hence the association with bad luck).

The traditional activities associated with the festival, as a result, involve warding off such bad luck.

Today Duan Wu Jie is an official public holiday in the PRC (since 2008) but was also awarded special ‘intangible’ cultural status by UNESCO in 2009. But the festival is also less officially observed in Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Korean peninsular and, broadly speaking, the general idea behind most of the traditional observances everywhere has been to avoid bad luck…

The 'westernised' festival today, however, is widely associated with racing ‘dragon’ boats and eating dumplings stuffed with glutinous rice. What's less known is that in the past it was also associated with going out and harvesting wild mugwort.


Well, one reason that the fifth month was considered to be generally an unhappier month than most in old China was because it was also the time of year that nasty summer illnesses emerged, and this is almost certainly why mugwort comes into the story because a tradition evolved to scythe bunches of mugwort on this day and then hang them over doors and windows to ‘ward off the demons of disease’. Although old China never made any direct suggestion that such demons might just be mosquitoes (such connections weren’t made anywhere until the end of the 19th century) this is where probably where the mugwort association originated: the fifth lunar month was when those demon mosquitoes began carrying parasitic diseases (like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, encephalitis etc etc) into households and creating significant illnesses. Since mugwort is well known to repel insects (the old English word mugge, from which the word mugwort is derived, meant midge or mosquito) it must have become clear that households which hung mugwort over doors and windows manifested significantly less summer disease than those that didn’t. Simple!

It was much later still that master physician Li Shizhen (1518  – 1593) added moxibustion into the mugwort mix – because he prescribed Duian Wu Jie as the day to go out and scythe mugwort plants, not just for hanging over doors and windows, but also for producing the best moxa as well.  At this time of year the mugwort would not quite have begun flowering, so actually the timing makes a lot of sense (and Li was most certainly not stupid...)

So if you have access to a scythe, (Li probably wouldn’t have approved of electric shears but certainly wouldn’t have baulked at a nice pair of secateurs) then today’s the day to get out there, find a nice stand of mugwort, scythe it down wholesale, bunch it up and take it home to dry it out for mugwort.

And if you’re bothered by local mosquitoes or midges, then why not try hanging some of it around the place and see if those pesky demons back off a bit too?

Happy Duan Wu Jie meanwhile!


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