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Join the ride as China celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival

Canoes, steamed rice and a poet characterize
this centuries-old tradition. And it has nothing to do with dragons.

REUTERS/Christina Hu

By Sandra Sparrowhawk | May 30, 2019

Friday June 7th 2019 marks the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Chinese calendar — a yearly celebration known as Duanwu in mainland China and Taiwan, Tuen Ng in Hong Kong, and the Dragon Boat Festival in the West.

The Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival, is one of the most important festivals held in China and commemorates the legend of Qu Yuan during the Warring States period.

Locals and visitors observe the festive occasion by feasting on rice dumplings (zongzi) and racing decorative Chinese dragon boats, a competition that demands a large amount of strength, endurance and team work.

The festival celebrates the legend of Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet of China’s Warring States period

The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival can be traced back to the death of Chinese poet and minister Qu Yuan during the Warring States period (481 BC – 403 BC), an era characterized by conflict, bureaucratic and military reforms that concluded with China’s unification in 221 BC under the rule of its first emperor: Qin Shi Huang.

Qu was born into a ruling family and served as the number one advisor to the King of the state of Chu – one of the seven warring states (Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin). In a move that would prove his undoing, Qu advised the King to ally with the state of Qi and fight against Qin, the most powerful of the seven states at the time.

REUTERS/Sean Yong

Smeared by envious officials and accused of treason, Qu was dismissed by the King shortly after his ill-timed advice and went on to lead a life of exile in his hometown, where he wrote some of the most famous poetry in the Chinese language.

However, when the Qin state successfully conquered the capital of Chu in 278 BC, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo river in a state of despair on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month – setting the date for the future Dragon Boat Festival.

The Dragon Boat Festival traditions, then and now

REUTERS/William Hong

After the locals got word of Qu’s death, they furiously paddled down the Miluo river in a bid to save him – or retrieve his remains – but to no avail.

Legend has it that the local people proceeded to throw lumps of rice into the river to prevent fish from feeding on the poet’s remains and took up rowing to ward off evil spirits, giving birth to the holiday’s two best known traditions.

Over time, rowing was replaced by dragon boat racing, lumps of rice turned into sticky rice dumplings (zongzi) and realgar wine became the celebratory drink in commemoration of Qu Yuan.

Today, one of the highlights of the dragon boat festivities is the rowing competition – a friendly competition between neighboring villages across Asia. Each year, 70 to 80 enthusiastic men compete districtwide in 30-meter long, heavy wooden boats, each ornamented with a dragon’s head at the prow for good luck.

A typical crew consists of around 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat. At the bow of the boat sits the drummer, largely considered the “heartbeat” of the crew, who uses the rhythmic drum beat to indicate the frequency and synchronicity of the team’s strokes. While doing so, the drummer may give orders, either by hand signalling or voice.

At the rear of the boat, the team also features a steerer who manipulates a 9-feet steering oar to direct the paddlers and adjust the positioning of the boat.

REUTERS/Wong Campion
The festival’s second highlight is its well-loved rice dumpling dish: Zongzi. The main ingredient of this delicacy is sticky rice that is wrapped in either bamboo or reed leaves. The inside can be filled with ingredients ranging from eggs, beans, vegetables, fruits, walnuts and even meat.

Zongzi is also available in different shapes and sizes and many families prepare it themselves as part of the traditional celebration of the festival.

Other customs include the wearing of colourful perfume pouches to protect children from evil (usually hung around the child’s neck) as well as the cleaning of one’s home and hanging of mugwort and calamus leaves on one’s doors. Allegedly, the stems of these plants emit an aroma that repels mosquitoes and purifies the air.

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