One of the most important holidays in Chinese culture, behind Lunar New Year and the Moon Festival, is the Dragon Boat Festival.
Massive celebrations and annual events are held all over China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, while many other countries with large Chinese populations hold smaller festivals as well.
Most people think of the Dragon Boat races, but do you actually know the history behind this very symbolic and important holiday?
Chu Yuan, the Chinese Poet
There are several legends on Dragon Boat, but the most widely repeated version involves Chu Yuan (also spelled Qu Yuan), who was a Chinese poet. During the Warring States Period between the 5th and 3rd centuries, B.C., Yuan was a counselor for the government.
He had a significant following of commoners, who applauded his stance against the rampant fighting and corruption that plagued the country. However, his views were not supported by the King of Chu, who banished Yuan after he urged the King to avoid further conflict.
It was during his period of exile that his poetic talents flourished. After receiving news that his kingdom had been defeated in battle, he became despondent, ultimately throwing himself into a river where he subsequently drowned.
Once his supporters heard of his apparent suicide, they rushed out in the long boats hoping to rescue him. When they realized they were too late, they began to beat heavy drums in hopes of scaring the fish away. They also threw jongzi (or zongzi) dumplings in hopes the fish would not eat away at Yuan’s body.
A symbolic food always consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday, the zongzi is a glutinous rice dumpling stuffed with a variety of fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and steamed or boiled. While they can be found daily in nearly every night market or traditional Chinese restaurant, it is more prevalent to see them during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Dragon Boat Festival or Duanwu Festival
In countries like Taiwan, Dragon Boat Festival is a public holiday where small businesses close and large corporations give employees the day off with pay. The holiday always falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar (June 6th for the 2011 calendar year).
The most common activities include racing the long dragon boats and of course, eating zongzi. In times past, people in Taiwan would throw the rice dumplings into the river to celebrate Poet Yuan.
The large scale dragon boat races can last for several days and draw crowds and teams from other countries as well. Festival grounds are filled with food and drink booths, children’s activities and more.
Some of the more historical and ancient traditions may have included rituals like:
- hanging of a mythical guardian figure known as Zhong Kui
- wearing perfumed medicine bags,
- making an egg stand at noon
- writing spells
If you have ever considered visiting mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan on your travels, timing your trip during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday is an excellent opportunity to gain insight to the Chinese culture and participate in one of the most important (and fun) local holiday celebrations.
To keep up on international travel news and deals, please subscribe (via email or RSS feed) and follow me on Twitter @poohstraveler. To keep up on Islands specific travel, check out my Islands travel column.