This weekend, waterways around China will resonate with the sounds of beating drums and splashing paddles as the 2012 Dragon Boat Festival gets underway. One of China's statutory one-day national holidays since 2008, the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节: "Duānwǔ Jié" in Mandarin or "Dyūn Ńgh Jit" in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and Macau) takes place annually on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (leading to its alternative moniker: the Double Fifth Festival). In 2012, the festival falls on Saturday, June 23, which leaves workers across China to enjoy a fun-filled three days of festivities.
How Dragon Boat Festival Began
Back in the mists of time, superstitious villagers across southern China would pray for health and prosperity, plentiful rains and a bountiful harvest, directing their prayers to the powerful dragon, long a symbol of the water and skies and lord of the lakes, rivers and seas throughout Asia. The Dragon Boat Festival goes back at least 2,500 years to fertility rites and rituals held on and around the summer solstice (which falls between June 20-21 by our current solar calendar), a time of year that often brought with it suffocating heat, disease and evil spirits. Later, the legend of the death of poet and statesman Qu Yuan (c. 340– 278 BCE), captured the imagination of the people and became enmeshed in the original festival.
A close adviser to the King of Chu during the Warring States Period, Qu Yuan opposed an alliance with the powerful state of Qin, but his advice was spurned and Qu branded a traitor and banished. He spent his years wandering and writing his famous verses, popular with all he met. However, poets are prone to melodrama, and on discovering that Chu had fallen to the Qin, he grabbed a large rock and threw himself into the Miluo River (Mìluó Jiāng, 汨罗江) in despair. It seems he was infinitely more popular with the local folks here than back in the palace, as villagers quickly raced out in their boats, splashing their paddles, beating drums and throwing rice in the water in an effort to keep the fish from eating his body.
The western translation of the festival as the "Dragon Boat Festival" likely goes back to the 19th century when European observers saw the racing element of the celebrations without understanding the real meaning of "Duānwǔ." The literal translation of "duān" refers to overhead or upright and "wǔ" to high noon or the point when the sun is highest in the sky — an ancient reference to the maximum position of the sun in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year and the summer solstice. The name stuck, however, making it the "Dragon Boat Festival" in Western terminology ever since.
What to Eat at Dragon Boat Festival
The traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival is zòngzi (粽子), sticky rice parcels that recall the rice thrown in to distract the feeding fish from the poet's remains.
Pyramids of rice are wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed for hours, their glutinous sticky insides a mix of rice with sweet or savory flavors of pork, bamboo, egg yolk, bean paste or dates. Traditionally, families would make their own zongzi, but with lifestyles becoming increasingly busy, these days buying ready-mades is quite acceptable (though generally less tasty). Weighing in at about 450 calories per piece however, zòngzi are not for the diet conscious, and with China's ever-expanding waistbands in the news, Taipei's Cathay Hospital has come to the rescue with a recipe for zongzi-lite that replace glutinous rice with mashed pumpkin or tofu, braised pork with chicken and bamboo with lots of seasonal vegetables, such as eggplants and long beans.
What to Drink at Dragon Boat Festival
The traditional Dragon Boat tipple is a brew called realgar wine (xiónghuáng jiǔ, 雄黃酒). Its significance stems from the festival's summer solstice roots. Along with the summer heat came sickness and disease, and potent wine made with realgar, an arsenic sulfide mineral believed by the ancient Chinese to be an antidote to all poisons, made for the perfect drop to repel to evil and misfortune.
Other precautions were also taken against illness and marauding ghosts during the festival, particularly where youngsters were concerned. Especially vulnerable to attack, children were (and in many case still are) given colorful pouches of protective medicinal herbs to wear around their necks and bracelets of red, yellow, blue white and black threads to ward off evil spirits. An image of guardian spirit Zhong Kui (Zhōng Kuí, 钟馗) may also be hung on doorways.
Paddle: Dragon Boat Racing
The highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival is, of course, the dragon boat (lóng zhōu, 龙舟) racing that takes place pretty much everywhere there's water. Teams of up to 20 paddlers maneuver crafts of up to 12 m (40 ft) in length along the course, frantically putting paddle to water in a desperate bid to outrace their opponents.
The colorful boats with their ornate dragon heads and a drummer at the helm, along with all the gongs and noisy celebrations that go with it, make for lot of fun either to watch, or take part — but beware, dragon boating makes for hard work and very tired muscles, as Dan Washburn found out in his first foray into the world of competitive dragon boating back in 2000.
Another element of the dragon boat race (though not observed everywhere) is the ritual of "Awakening the Dragon." Traditionally, this involves a Taoist priest (though today more often a VIP guest) "dotting" the blank eyes of the dragon head with a brush dipped in red ink, symbolically bringing the creature's spirit to life.
The style of the dragon heads themselves change according to the favored local style, with the "cock dragonhead" of Guangzhou's West River (Xī Jiāng, 西江) and the "big-head dog dragonhead" of the East River (Dōng Jiāng, 东江) in Guangzhou being two of the most distinctive. Though the festivities generally remain the same, some celebrations have been adapted to local customs, with interesting variations.
In Jiangxi, for example, boats are made from a combination of wood and bamboo and paraded through the streets on the shoulders of their crew, while in Wujing County, Zhejiang and Wutongqiao in Sichuan, races take place at night on boats decorated with lamps, gold and lights beaming from the dragon's eyes as they navigate their way through fire set on the water's surface!
In the past, Jiangyin in Jiangsu also played host to one of the most exciting-sounding races, with crews made up of the top martial artists from surrounding towns and villages performing a spectacular array of stunts with whips, swords and knives before huge crowds along the river bank. Sadly, that all came to an end, with the last such event taking place in 1946 after the war. Today, the martial artists have been replaced with regular dragon boat crews, though the race remains one of the biggest in China, with a total of RMB 400,000 (over USD 60,000) up for grabs.