With a history of over 2,000 years, the Dragon Boat Festival, also referred to as Duanwu Festival, is steeped in history and tradition. The holiday falls on the fifth of the Chinese lunar calendar’s 5th month and commemorates Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet, and patriot who lived from 340-278 BCE.
The Dragon Boat Festival is a celebration where many drink realgar wines (xiong huangjiu), eat rice dumplings (zongzi), take long walks, hang mugwort and calamus, wear perfumed medicine bags, and write spells.
All of these activities including making an egg stand at noon were regarded by the ancients as an effective way of preventing evil and diseases while promoting great health and well-being. Sometimes people wear talismans to cast away evil spirits or hang the picture of Zhong Kui, a guardian against evil spirits on the door of their homes. Traditionally, Chinese citizens would throw bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water while today the custom is to eat rice dumplings and tsung tzu.
Many believe the Duanwu Festival originated in ancient China based on the suicide of the statesman of the Chu Kingdom and poet, Qu Yuan in 278BCE. He served as an advisor of Chu’s state during China’s Warring States era (475-221BCE), when China was ruled by several warring factions.
Qu Yuan’s wisdom and intellectual ways antagonized other court officials. Thus, they accused him of false charges of conspiracy, and he was exiled by the king. Qu was forced to live a quiet life at home, where he wrote poems including Tian Wen(Heavenly Questions), Jiu Ge (Nine Songs), and Li Sao (The Lament) to express his sorrow and anger towards his sovereign country and people. Later his work became some of the most classic in Chinese literature.
Qu grew concerned about the fate of the Chu state when he learned of the capture of his state’s capital by the state of Qin. After he finished working on his final piece titled, Huai Sha (Embracing Sand) he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River by attaching a heavy stone to his chest at the age of sixty-one.
The Qin state would become the first imperial dynasty in China. The Chu people tried to save him because they regarded him as an honorable man. After desperately searching for him in their boats, they were at long last unable to save him. Duanwu Jie is celebrated annually, and this year it falls between the 9th-11th of June. Each year the Duanwu Festival is celebrated to honor his attempted rescue
The locals began the tradition of throwing sacrificial cooked rice into the river for Qu Yuan while others believed that the rice would prevent the fish in the river from eating his body. Initially, the locals made zongzi which is glutinous rice dumplings which are pyramid shaped and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, hoping that it would sink in the river and reach Qu yuan’s body. The following year the tradition of wrapping the rice in bamboo leaves to make zongzi began. An old man also poured a jug of realgar wine which is Chinese liquor with realgar seasoning into the water to turn all the aquatic beasts drunk. This is why today, Chinese eat zongzi, drink realgar wine, and race in dragon boats.
A dragon boat is a human-powered boat or paddle that is traditionally made of teak wood in various sizes and designs. They usually have designs that are brightly decorated and range from 40 to 100 feet in length. with an open-mouthed dragon shaped front and a scaly tail in the back. The boat has up to 80 rowers to power the boat depending on the length.
Dragon boat races are such an important part of the Duanwu festival, going on across the country. Before any competition, a sacred ceremony is performed to bring the boat to life by painting the eyes. After firing the gun, the racers in the canoes start to row fast and harmoniously with rapid drums accompanying them as they speed towards their destination. It is such a semi-entertaining and semi-religious program. Currently, this race is popular in the world having spread to Britain, Japan, and, Vietnam and has become a water sports event.
Zongzi is a very important meal of the Dragon race festival. People mainly ate them during the Autumn and Spring Period (770-476BC). It is a glutinous rice ball with filling and wrapped in corn leaves. The fillings can be beans, fruits, potato, eggs, mushroom, walnuts, meat, dates or a combination. Folk tales say if you balance an egg on its end at exactly noon on the fifth day, the rest of the year will be lucky. The custom of Zongzi is now famous in Southern Asian countries, Japan, and Korea.
Parents should dress up their children with perfume pouches which will be tied in front of a cloth/garment or even hanging it around the neck as an ornament as they are believed to cast away evil. The hanging of moxa and calamus on the front door, posting pictures of Chung Kuei, and drinking Hung Huang wine are also said to possess qualities to bring peace and prevent evil.
Dragon Boat Festivities in Beijing
On the Duanwu festival, it is a taboo in Beijing to fetch water from a well because the water might be poisonous. Hence people fetch water on the day before the festival. Vendors also hawk mulberries and cherries since people believe these fruits prevent the consumption of flies unconsciously throughout the year. The food stores sell “Five-Poison Cake,” a rose pie on which the images of the five most poisonous creatures (frog, centipede, spider, scorpion, and snake) are inscribed.
There are so many activities going on in Beijing during this day including the annual inter-university Dragon Boat Race held at the Xiadu Park. The event organizers are always big on performances, and food and games to get you immersed into the cultural activity. This is China’s equivalent to the boat races between top UK universities. The day is full of races with the teams battling it up for the top spot. At Beihai, they celebrate by letting you row on your own.
Houhai also has an annual Dragon Boat Race, while Hutong has zongzi making classes. There is also a lot of good meals prepared in restaurants around the city in honor of the day such as crayfish, chicken, shrimp and cornbread at Great Leap #45.
Dragon Boat Festivities in Shanghai
In Shanghai, the Dragon Boat Festivities are also in full force. Wherever there is a body of water, there should be some races going on. There is the Suzhou Creek, Jinji Lake, Taihu Lake Cup, and Songjiang Dragon Boat Races as well as the Jiaxing Dragon Boat Cultural Festival. The latter features a lot of cultural performances, dragon boat race, and zongzi-wrapping festival.
You can also do something multicultural, for instance, Shanghai Center hosts some great artists performing pieces ranging from jazz, swing, Celtic, to traditional Chinese pieces. You can also learn some poetry, for instance, the Garden Books host poetry workshops in honor of the great poet Qu Yuan. The good people at BEAN are also the high priests of fun, thoughtful charity events. During this festivals, they meet at Shanghai Tattoo to do something charitable, for instance getting a tattoo to raise money for girl’s education.
The Duanwu Festival celebration is believed to be good for casting away evil and diseases all year round. The Chinese people make good use of the three days to travel out of town, visit attractions, watch dragon boat races, enjoy time with family and also indulge in some hearty traditional meals and cool music. It is a festival you should look forward to since having fun for a good cause has never been this great.
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