Dating back to more than 2,000 years ago, the Dragon Boat Festival is considered as one of the most significant celebrations in China, which also happens to have the longest history. It takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, also known as the “Evil Month” in ancient times for the widespread diseases brought about by the warm weather. Despite originating from China, the Dragon Boat Festival has become well-celebrated in Asia, with the traditional activities still being observed at present.
The Dragon Boat Festival is believed to have numerous origins, but the most popular would be that of Qu Yuan, said to be the father of Chinese poetry. During the Warring States period, the patriotic poet was also a high official serving as a top advisor of the Kingdom of Chu, especially in the fight against the powerful state of Qin. However, he was later exiled by the king after enemies accused him of treason. Upon learning about the downfall of Chu, Qu Yuan then committed suicide at Miluo River on exactly the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The locals who supported the great poet tried to recover his body by paddling boats and throwing sticky rice dumplings, in hopes that the evil spirits will be turned away and the fishes wouldn’t feed on Qu Yuan’s corpse, respectively. Two thousand years later, the people residing near Miluo River have kept such traditions alive.
A similar story tells the fate of Wu Zixu, who was forced by the king of Wu to commit suicide on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month as well. He requested that his eyes be removed and hung on the city gates in order for him to witness the victory of Yue over Wu, which further angered the king, who then ordered that Wu Zixu’s body be thrown into a river. Another legend is that of Cao E, a young girl who died by trying to recover the body of his drowned father in a river.
DRAGON BOAT RACING
The main activity during this annual festival, dragon boat racing is a watersport that tests endurance and promotes team coordination. It has long been part of Chinese culture—a centuries-old tradition dedicated to the water gods, particularly during summertime. A group of 20 paddlers sit side-by-side along the length of the boat, which is a canoe-like watercraft made of teak wood. They are led by a drummer on the bow and a steerer on the rear. The former is responsible for the team’s synchronized paddling, as he provides instructions and sets the pace using a rhythmic beat. Dragon boat races typically cover 500 metres, with the winning team having to cross the finish line or pull a flag signifying the end of the route.
Participating boats are designed with the head and tail of a dragon. Considered as one of the most significant creatures in Chinese mythology, the legendary dragon represents divine power over all kinds of water like rains, floods, typhoons, rivers, and seas. It is also believed to attract good luck, with the Chinese turning to these symbolic dragons for good harvest during the months of summer.
The Dragon Boat Festival is also referred to as the Dumpling Festival, taking inspiration from how the fishermen resorted to making rice dumplings and throwing them into the river while searching for Qu Yuan’s body. Zongzi, as the traditional Chinese food is called, is composed of glutinous rice that is stuffed with various fillings that range from sweet to savoury flavours. These include red bean, fresh meat, dried shrimps, egg yolks, and dates, to name a few. They are then wrapped in bamboo leaves and shaped in triangular or pyramidal forms.
Another festival tradition involves making an egg stand at noon, an achievement believed to bring good fortune in the coming year. Meanwhile, others have become used to heading out to the beach as a means of cleansing themselves. Today, the Dragon Boat Festival is observed across Asia, particularly in the neighbouring countries of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.