The Dragon Boat Festival (also known as the Duanwu Festival) is set to take place on the 9th June this year and is celebrated all over China. The traditional folk festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, which is slightly different to the more commonly used Gregorian calendar. Therefore, the date varies from year to year. The festival has been held annually for over 2000 years and may be notable for its educational influence. The festival commemorates the patriotic poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) and also acts as a chance for Chinese people to build their bodies and encourage good health. The festival was marked as a cultural holiday in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau as recent as 2008, as it was finally recognised as a traditional and statutory public holiday in the People’s Republic of China.
The legend behind the festival begins with the story of scholar Qu Yuan, who was a loyal minister of the King of Chu in the third century BCE. Qu Yuan was summoned by court officials of conspiracy and was exiled from the king, and turned to writing to express his emotions during this time. Ultimately, he drowned in the Miluo River at the age of 61 and left behind many poems which demonstrated his loyalty to the king. The people of Chu searched for Qu Yuan in boats on the river when he disappeared. Every year the Dragon Boat Festival aims to be celebrated to commemorate this attempt at rescuing Qu Yuan. The dragon boats used during the festival are normally brightly coloured and designs may range anywhere from 40-100 feet in length. The front end is normally shaped like an open-mouthed dragon and the back end with a scaly tail. The boats may have up to 80 rowers to power the boat depending on length and a sacred ceremony is performed before any competition in order to bring the boat to life by painting the eyes on the dragon. The first team to grab a flag at the end of the course wins the race.
Besides racing dragon boats, the focus of most of the Dragon Boat Festivals celebrations involves eating zongzi, a sticky rice treat wrapped in bamboo leaves and drinking realgar wine. Realgar wine is a Chinese alcoholic drink consisting of fermented cereals and powdered realgar, which was historically regarded by the Chinese as an antidote for many poisons. Other activities include hanging icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, writing spells and wearing perfumed medicine bags. During this time, Chinese citizens traditionally take part in throwing bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water and it is also customary to eat tzungtzu and rice dumplings. Other traditional activities include a game of making an egg stand on its own at noon, as ancient Chinese traditions suggest the successful player may experience good luck in the next year. All of the traditions mentioned as well as drinking realgar wine were regarded by the ancients as effective in promoting good health and well-being. There is currently a statue of Qu Yuan in Jingzhou, at the site of the former Chu capital ‘Ying’.
With 2000 years of continuous development, the Dragon Boat Festival may have become an important competitive sport. Many places in China hold dragon boat races during the festival such as Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, the Milui River in Hunan Province, the Qingshui River in Guizhou Province and Xixi National Wetland Park in Hangzhou.
Which other Chinese festivals hold rich cultural meaning and a long history?