The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Duanwu Festival, is a traditional holiday in China that commemorates the life and death of Qu Yuan (Chu Yuan), the famous Chinese scholar and poet. The festival takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunisolar calendar, making this year’s celebration fall on May 30.
The highlight of the festival is the racing of the dragon boats. People treat themselves to rice dumplings and realgar wine (comprised of cereal wine and an arsenic sulfide mineral). Steamed rice balls, also known as zong zi, are a staple for this festival. Wrapped in corn leaves, this steamed rice ball is chock full of egg, beans, fruit, dates, sweet potato, walnuts, and mushrooms, usually along with some type of meat.
During this festival, people also display pictures of Zhong Kui (an ancient figure who guarded against evil spirits), hang mugwort and calamus (aromatic plants), take walks, write spells and don scented medicine bags. Another tradition is to make a raw egg stand on its own at noon-time, which ancients thought would prevent disease and evil spirits while encouraging well-being and luck throughout the coming year.
This holiday originated in ancient times in honor of the poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom, Qu Yuan back in 278 BC. Although he was loyal to the king, others were intimidated by his intellect and accused him of conspiracy. After being exiled, he wrote poems about his loyalty and subsequent distress over being thrown out, preaching his thoughts across the land. Soon after, he committed suicide at 61 by flinging himself into the Miluo River.
Now, the Dragon Boat Festival symbolizes China’s attempts to “find” the body of Qu Yuan in the river.
The boats, ranging from 40 to 100 feet long, feature bright, colorful designs with the fronts highlighting open-mouthed dragons and the backs resembling tails. Rowers paint on the eyes of the dragon before racing. Whichever boat can grab the flag at the end and get back to the starting line first wins. Paddle boats or oar-powered boats can be used.
The Dragon Boat Festival is more popular in the southern regions like the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong. It usually takes place over three days, causing congestion in the more populated areas. Plan ahead if you are going to these areas during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Although it has always been a cultural holiday, it is now considered a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China.
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