Dragon Boat Festival – called 端午节 (duān wǔ jié) in Chinese, and also known as Double Fifth Festival – is one of the major traditional holidays in China. The name Double Fifth Festival comes from the fact that it is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. In 2021, this means the holiday falls on June 14th. Since that is a Monday, we are lucky enough to have a long weekend without having to give up any Saturdays or Sundays before or after as make up days.
The first thing people think of when they hear Dragon Boat Festival is that of river races in boats shaped like dragons. This is how this holiday is celebrated not only in China, but also within many Chinese communities around the world.
The history of the festival is ancient though, as the holiday has its roots in a mythological story that dates back more than two thousand years.
Even though, nowadays, Dragon Boat Festival is one of the major holidays in China, it was recognized as a traditional and public holiday in the People’s Republic of China as late as 2008.
Every holiday has it’s beginning, and although there are many theories on how Dragon Boat Festival originated, the most famous legend refers to the memory of the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (屈原). According to one of the stories, Qu Yuan was a loyal minister of the Kingdom of Chu, and dedicated his whole life to helping the king build a strong State of Chu. Many times, he appealed to the king and the state to implement reforms against corruption, but he was slandered by jealous officials and was dismissed and exiled by the king. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a lot of poems, showing his love and patriotism for his country, as well as denouncing the corruption and greedy state representatives. Some of those poems are still very famous in China.
When the State of Qin captured the capital of the State of Chu, Qu Yuan could not take seeing his homeland defeated and committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. When the local people heard about it, they tried to rescue the poet, whom they saw as a paragon of honor. In their boats, locals were desperately searching, but were not able to find Qu Yuan. After people lost any hope to find him alive, to save Qu Yuan’s body, people were throwing cooked rice into the river, hoping that the fish would eat the rice balls and not touch the body. And to save his soul from the evil spirits and scare them away, the locals were hitting the water with their paddles and beating big drums.
Whether you believe this legend or not, this is where and how Dragon Boat Festival started and people in China are still following similar traditions on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar.
The biggest attraction and highlight of this festival, which is closely tied to the commemoration of Qu Yuan, are the dragon boat races. The boats might not be real dragons, but they are certainly impressive! A dragon boat is a human-powered wooden watercraft, shaped and decorated in the form of a dragon. Usually, boats are 20-35 meters long and have 30-60 people on board with a drummer seated in the head of the dragon. But, of course, shapes, colors and sizes all vary, depending on the region.
Nowadays, the tradition of racing dragon boats has spread all around the globe and has become very popular not only in Mainland China, but also in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Singapore.
What would any Chinese holiday be without its attending culinary customs? Dragon Boat Festival is no exception to the rule. On the morning of the festival, every family has to eat zòngzi (粽子) – to commemorate the poet Qu Yuan. As a part of the festival, zongzi have become a symbol of this day, just like the dragon boats. They are a kind of sticky rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with a variety of different fillings (red beans, pork, peanuts, dates, etc.). Usually, they are steamed or boiled and prepared before the festival together by all family members. There is a special way to wrap Zòng Zi, you can try to make some by yourself, alone or with your friends, kids or family.
During every Dragon Boat Festival, many Chinese families follow the custom of wearing incense bags (or pouches) to avoid catching contagious diseases and to keep evil spirits away. These bags are made from colorful silk cloth and tied as decorations to children’s clothes.
Have you ever seen calamus or wormwood leaves on the doors of apartments? This is another tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival meant to discourage disease and dispel the evil spirits.
There are also some special traditions that are being followed in different parts of China. For example, in the North, children wear a bracelet made of seven colored threads. They have to wear the bracelet until the first rain after the festival hits. Then, the bracelets are thrown into the rain water to be washed away. In the West of China, big trade fairs are held during the dragon boat races. The people of East China wash their eyes and faces with water mixed with burned magic papers, and then pour that water onto the road as a symbol of getting rid of disasters. In the South, people bathe in special water made from a hundred herbs to prevent scabies.
Have you ever eaten zongzi before? Or been gifted a colorful bracelet? Or would you like to participate in a dragon boat race? However you spend this year’s Dragon Boat Festival – enjoy!