The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Jie (端午节) is a National Holiday in China, and is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month following the traditional lunar calendar. This year, the festival falls on June 20th.
The English name “Dragon Boat Festival” translates directly to Longchuan Jie (龙船节) which is also its name on the Chinese mainland. The name Duanwu Jie is more commonly used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The date of the festival, according to the lunar calendar, 5/5 is also the source of its alternative name, the “Double Fifth Festival”.
While there are a few different origin stories for this holiday, in most parts of China the festival is said to commemorate the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (屈原). During the Warring States period of Ancient China, Qu Yuan worked as a minister in the ancient Chinese State of Chu. During this period, there were seven warring states, and Qu Yuan supported the decision to take up arms against the State of Qin, a formidable opponent. However, the King of Chu decided rather than fight and risk defeat, he would ally with the State of Qin. When Qu Yuan publicly opposed the alliance, he was exiled and accused of treason.
Qu Yuan had such love for his country, that during his exile he wrote countless poems about his home country. Twenty-eight years later, the state of Qin captured Yin–the capital city of the state of Chu–and, in despair Qu Yuan threw himself into the river and drowned himself.
The legend says the local people admired him so much, they raced out in their boats to try to save Qu Yuan, or at least retrieve his body. They couldn’t find his body, so they threw balls of sticky rice into the water with hopes the fish would eat the rice instead of the body of their beloved poet. The race to retrieve his body is said to be the origin of the actual dragon boat races; the sticky rice balls (zongzi, or 粽子) have since become a Chinese delicacy eaten during the holiday. There are varying English names for this traditional Chinese food, including Dragon Dumplings and Glutinous Sticky Rice Balls. They are often wrapped in leaves and sold in supermarkets, on the street, and in specialty stores, where they prepare gourmet zongzi of various tastes and flavors.
In modern-day China, the festival is celebrated in some places by racing dragon boats and eating zongzi. It is also believed to be a time to strengthen your body, cleaning your house, and doing what you can to prevent getting sick during the hot summer. This is done by hanging mugwort leaves and calamus in the house, and wearing small perfume pouches that protect children from evil. In metropolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, you are less likely to see many of these customs and traditions. But they’re still very much alive in more traditional rural cities.
By: Mikkel Larsen
Photo credit: Tolbzela (Flickr) | License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode