The Hard and Fast Guide to Dragonboat Festival

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Thursday, June 09, 2016 

under Culture by Enjoy Team

Dragon Boat Festival days off are here! In case you didn’t notice, the holiday is happening for a reason. Hint, it’s in the name. “The Dragon Boat” Festival. If you don’t know much about it and you don’t care, make a beeline for the zòngzi (rice dumplings) and you’ll be fine. However, if you care to know more about the culture and traditions of the festival, we have here the juicy bits that you could casually share with your friends to make yourself look cool.


When Does Dragon Boat Festival Take Place?

It’s set in stone. Kind of. Dragon Boat Festival has fallen on every May 5thin the lunar calendar for over two thousand years in China. That, incidentally, is why it’s sometimes called Zhòngwǔ, or Double Fifth, Festival (重五节) — 5/5. However, since the lunar and Gregorian calendars do not match exactly, the exact date of the festival varies. This year, it happens to be June 9th, granting us a three-day holiday from 9th to 11th.




What’s With The Name?

The original Chinese name is Duānwǔ Festival (端午节), meaning quite literally the beginning of May in the lunar calendar. Over the years, it’s morphed into the name “Dragon Boat Festival” because those awesome dragon-shaped boat races prevail across the country and throughout China’s history.


Why the Dragon Boat Racing?

Now then, why would people want to just hop in the boat and start paddling in the water? In Chinese history, we never lack for stories, and for Dragon Boat Festival, we have two most popular versions—one tragic epic about a loyal chancellor and one folk legend about a filial daughter.


In 278 BC, the chancellor of state of Chǔ (楚), Qū Yuán (屈原), had watched his be devoured by forces of the state of Qín (秦). Sitting the Mìluō River (汨羅江), he wrote a final poem to express resolute loyalty. The last lines of the poem read—


the world is dull and turbid,

with no one I could resonate;

death is inevitable and I wish not to loiter;

oh righteous sages, I shall follow your path!



He then tied himself to a heavy stone, hurled himself in the river and committed suicide. Local residents offered their condolences as they sailed on the river; aside from boat-rowing, they wanted to keep the sea-life from consuming Qū Yuán’s body, so they tossed zòngzi into the river in hope of satiating the hunger of fish and shrimps. Their commiserations later developed into traditions, both the boat-rowing and the zòngzi-eating.


Quite different from the suicide of Qū Yuán, there’s another story about a daughter’s touching sense of duty for her deceased father. During the Hàn Dynasty (23-220 AD), a fourteen-year-old girl called Cáo É cried her heart out by the river for her drowned father, whose body the authorities could not find. After a fortnight, she jumped into the river and recovered her father’s body five days later. Her legendary filial piety was honored with the river and town named after her, and celebrated annually on the festival.



As much as we might want to believe in ancient mysteries, it does seem that the people down in Guǎngdōng have celebrated Dragonboat races long before Qū or Cáo’s time. The competition, held on a wide variety of festive occasions, embodied a sort of ritual intended to please the divine beings residing underwater. Why would the divine beings would want those noisy humans splashing around and beating drums over their peaceful subaquatic kingdoms? The gods move in mysterious ways.


So, long story short, Dragonboat racing, or simply Dragonboat rowing on this particular day, is a half-ritualistic and half-entertaining outdoor activity.


What Options Do You Have Other Than Racing Boats?


Well, you could check out our events rundown here… or keep reading to find out about some traditional decorations, food & drink and some urban legends to tell your friends about and look all cultured and stuff.


Foods & Drinks


There is so much more to Dragonboat Festival than Dragonboat competitions. Mainly regarding food. Since this is a Chinese festival, you know there’s going to be a handsome lot of traditional foods and drinks for the occasion. In spite of zòngzi abounding throughout the country, some regions have extra specialties.


-    Five Huáng’s: This is a less common tradition and seen only around Shanghai. The five huáng’s are five foods with the character huáng (黄) in them, namely, cucumber (huángguā), eel (huángshàn), yellow-fin tuna (huángyù), salted duck egg yolk (xiàn yá dān huáng), and xiónghuáng wine.


-    Jiānduī (煎堆): In Fujian province, almost all families eat these small sticky fried balls made of potato flour, sesame and other ingredients and condiments around this time.

-     Bonus Story: The story goes that a long time ago it rained for months on end, and the locals decided there must have been a hole in the sky. So they made the jiānduī to plug them up, and shortly thereafter it stopped raining. They’ve been eating jiānduī ever since. Just in case it’ll start raining again if they stop.


-    Xiónghuáng wine (雄黄酒): Adults drink the wine and rub some drops on kids’ ears, nose and hands to ward off insects and snakes.

-     Health Note: Xiónghuáng wine, known in English as realgar wine, is less popular these days than it once was, possibly due to the fact that it contains high levels of arsenic compounds. Arsenic, as you probably know, is one of the most potent poisons known to man. So, it might be traditional, but if someone offers you a cup (or to paint your child with it), we recommend that you just say no, kids.


-    Zòngzi (粽子): Last, but certainly not least, the trademark dish of the festival itself, the stick rice dumpling. Wrapped in bamboo leaves, zòngzi smells almost as good as it tastes. The typical salty filling is pork, but the sweet tooths among you should try red bean purée and date.





Apart from food and drinks, you could take the opportunity to hang up some good luck herbs over your doorstep or keep them in your jacket pocket. Both are herbal medicines that smell nice and chase away insects, making these decorations widely adored in these mid-spring days.


-    Àicǎo (艾草): Otherwise known as Asian mugwort or wormwood, this is a local plant and herbal medicine that provides all kinds of health benefits. People may also bathe in water infused with this herb.


-    Chāngpú (菖蒲): Known as calamus, is a sweet smelling herb that acts as a light stimulant and a general tonic. The extract is also good for digestion… and getting rid of flatulence.


You can keep either or both of these in a little sachet in your pocket! Patterns on this small bag matter—blossoms and fruits for the seniors, tigers for the kids, and young women used to sow special personal message on sachets for their significant other in the old times.


If you’re not into sweet-smelling herbs, you can instead just hang up a picture of Zhōng Kuí The Demon Queller (鍾馗), who, apart from laying claim to one of the coolest names ever, helps ward off evil spirits and bad luck.



Urban legends?


A well-known secret about the festival is that the day is rather devilish, which explains all the demon-proof protections and traditions. For example, in ancient times, newly wedded daughters would return to their parents’ home for some time to avoid potential imminent dangers.


Another accessory with a somewhat alarming background that women and kids wear, is a silk wrist/ankle band made from silk of five colors. Indigo, red, white, black and yellow are seen as an auspicious combo for the occasion. On the morning of the festival, parents tie these bands on kids’ wrist and ankle—during this process, kids are forbidden from talking (if you like, you can forget to mention that they can start talking again after the bands are attached).


The band must not be broken or lost, and can only be tossed into the river during the first rainfall in the summer (so it probably stay on for long). They say that no harm shall come to those wearing the band, and that the water will carry away diseases when the band is cut off.


Okay can you repeat all of that?


As our Dragon Boat Festival tutorial draws to an end, let’s quickly review the key points. This year’s festival takes place on June 9th, because it happens to be May 5thin the lunar calendar, corresponding to its Chinese name Duānwǔ (端午节).  As most commonly believed, we sail Dragonboats and eat zòngzi in memory of Qū Yuán the tragic chancellor. Lots of people today still hang àicǎo or chāngpú plants on their doors or lay them on the doorsteps to keep off insects and bring home well-being. And you should hang up a picture of a big angry god or tie some silk bands to your ankles and wrists to ward off the evil spirits.


Hopefully you got a big bite of what the festival really is—and of zòngzi!


Happy Dragon Boat Festival!