Why Chinese people drink arsenic on Dragon Boat Festival

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Jun 08

If you are a snake, you must be careful today, the 5th day of the 5th month, because today is Dragon Boat Festival. The festival may be most well-known in the West for the dragon boat races that give it its English name, but there are many lesser-known traditions as well.

Calamus plant is hung on the side of one’s door. Pesticide wine is drank. Children are painted adorned with hanging ornaments. Pictures of Zhong Kui, the king of ghosts, are hung. Tying together these traditions is a belief that they can protect one from evil spirits (including snakes).

Calamus on sale in Nanjing.

Calamus on sale in Nanjing.

Often the Chinese calendar-based festival falls around summer solstice, which is June 20-21, although it came earlier this year. The day is long, and the bugs and snakes are at full force. Realgar wine (雄黃酒, xiónghuángjiǔ), a traditional pesticide in Chinese medicine, is supposed to keep away mosquitos. (In fact, the poisonous element, realgar, is a mild arsenic sulfide mineral, which can be dangerous in excessive consumption.) Children who are too young to drink realgar wine would have an ornament containing realgar and other herbs and have the character for “kind” written on their forehead.

The traditions relating to the use of realgar are not as popular anymore as they once were, but realgar wine did inspire one of China’s greatest folktales and operas, Madame White Snake. A snake who took the form of a woman fell in love with a man at West Lake in Hangzhou and married him, but she was tricked into drinking realgar wine during Dragon Boat Festival and is revealed to be a snake. Madame White Snake eventually is imprisoned under the Leifeng Pagoda (and later freed) at West Lake, which makes the pagoda a famous tourist sight today. The man she married still loves her, but he has to go through a lot of toil to get her back.

So the moral of the story is don’t drink realgar wine, or your lover might be revealed to be a snake. Best to avoid the hassle, which sounds fine to me, because realgar wine doesn’t sound too appetizing in the first place.

Also, my zodiac sign is a snake.

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About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.