What is the Dragon Boat Festival?

The dragon boat festival (端午节 duān wǔ jié) is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar (June 7th in 2019). 

But what is it, where does it originate, and how is it celebrated? 

Although in different areas of the country the festival commemorates several different characters from ancient China, with all the stories involving water, the most common origin story is that the festival commemorates Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), a poet and politician.

One of the greatest collections of ancient Chinese poetry, the Chu Ci (楚辭) is made up of works written by him or inspired by him. He was a high-ranking minister in the government of the State of Chu, but later in life began to feel depressed by political events and eventually drowned himself in the Miluo River (in present-day Hebei).

According to legend, the locals rushed over in their boats to try to save Qu Yuan but they were too late. They threw sticky rice into the water and beat their oars on the water to try to keep the fish away from the body. Later, Qu Yuan appeared in a dream to his friends, and told them to wrap rice in silk parcels with three corners.

From these events we get dragon boat racing and zongzi (粽子 zòngzi), which are bundles of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and stem from the sticky rice thrown into the water.

Zongzi can be sweet or savoury and are cooked by steaming or boiling

Wooden dragon boats are long, thin canoes with a head shaped like a Chinese dragon. Boat size varies by region but usually boats are 20–35 meters in length with 30–60 rowers. During races, dragon boat rowers are accompanied by a drummer to help them stay in sync. It is said that the winning team will have good luck in the following year.

The connection to dragons may come from the proximity of the festival to the summer solstice. Because the sun represents yang or male energy (with the moon representing yin or female energy) the peak of ‘male energy’ comes at the summer solstice. In China, the dragon represents male energy.

And that’s the Dragon Boat Festival! Will you be going to see any races, or finding somewhere to eat Zongzi? Let us know in the comments below. Have a question about anything Cultural Keys related? Use the contact form at the bottom of the page. However you choose to get in contact, we always love hearing from you!

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