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The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival: Origins, Customs, and Facts

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Everything that you’d need to know about the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival.

Everything that you’d need to know about the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival.

The most important summer festival for the Chinese, the Dragon Boat Festival, or Duan Wu Jie (端午节), continues to be celebrated by Chinese communities worldwide each year.

In modern times, the signature activity of the festival i.e. dragon boating has also taken the worldwide sporting scene by storm. Dragon boating regattas are nowadays hosted throughout the world and the calendar year. Which, in turn, gave rise to the popular English name of the festival.

If you’re new to this vibrant and colorful festival, the following are the most important origin stories, festive customs, and festival facts to know. And if you’re reading because celebrations are near, duan wu jie kuai le (端午节快乐)! May you enjoy good health and be free of pesky bugs, as you feast on yummy glutinous rice dumplings with family and friends.

1. “Duan Wu Jie” Means the Festival of the Beginning of the Fifth Month

The Dragon Boat Festival has many Chinese names but is most commonly referred to as Duan Wu Jie. Chinese logograms-wise, duan (端) means “beginning,” while wu (午) means “noon.” Combined together, the name could thus mean the “beginning of noon/summer.”

This interpretation is, however, erroneous. Under the Chinese Earthly Stem calendar system, the same wu character is used to refer to the fifth lunar month. Thus, Duan Wu actually means the “beginning of the fifth month.”

Furthermore, wu is a homonym for wu (五), the latter character meaning “five.” As the festival is always celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, historians believe the festival was originally called 端五 (same pronunciation). Over time, the name morphed into its modern form.

Is It a Horse or Dragon?

Under the Earthly Stem calendar system, wu can also be a reference to “horse.” This, unfortunately, then creates confusion within the same system, as there is also a poetic word for “dragon.” Non-Chinese familiar only with the English name of the festival will especially be baffled.

2. It Is One of the Four Most Important Chinese Festivals

Together with the Chinese New Year, the Qingming Festival, and the Mid-Autumn festival, Duan Wu Jie is regarded as one of the four most important Chinese traditional festivals. As the festival is the only one happening within the summer months, it could also be considered the most important summer celebration for the Chinese.

3. The Festival Was Originally a Ritual to Banish Insects and Gods of Plague

In Ancient China, the fifth lunar month, particularly the fifth day, was regarded as exceptionally terrible. It was believed that these were the dates when insects and diseases would start overwhelming the world, and when plague gods would descend to Earth.

Ancient Chinese communities, therefore, displayed drawings of gods during the fifth lunar month to ward away illnesses. Some communities also hanged insect/evil banishing herbs like Artemisia (wormwood) and Calamus around their homes.

There were even the practices of making drawings of the Chinese five venomous creatures, sticking these on walls, and putting pins onto the illustrations. To put it in another way, the “festival” originally has nothing at all to do with dragon boating. In fact, it wasn’t even a festival. It was more of an annual, fearful ritual, in hopes of good health.

It’s Not All Superstition

The fifth lunar month marks the start of the warmest days in the Northern Hemisphere i.e. summer. Scientifically, summer is known to be the favorite season for insects.

4. The Dragon Boat Festival Commemorates the Death of Patriotic Poet, Qu Yuan

For modern generations, Duan Wu Jie is most famously associated with Qu Yuan (屈原), a poet-politician of the State of Chu during China’s Warring States Era.

So the story goes, the wise and patriotic Qu was aghast at the decision of his sovereign to ally with the State of Qin. His protests also resulted in him accused of treason and banished from Chu.

Years later, when Qin conquered the Chu capital, the heartbroken Qu Yuan killed himself by leaping into the Miluo River. On learning of the suicide, the surrounding country folk paddled out in boats to retrieve his body, and when unsuccessful, dropped balls of glutinous rice into the river to discourage fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body.

Over time, the legend gave rise to the customs most associated with the Dragon Boat Festival today.

Statue of Qu Yuan in Singapore.

Statue of Qu Yuan in Singapore.

5. Qu Yuan Is Not the Only Folkloric Chinese Hero Commemorated by the Festival

While most famous, Qu Yuan is not the only Chinese folkloric hero associated with the Dragon Boat Festival.

In the Suzhou region, the festival commemorates the death of Wu Zixu (伍子胥). A general of the State of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period, the fiercely loyal and outspoken Wu was executed by his king after he unsuccessful warned the sovereign about the impending threat of the Yue State.

Elsewhere in Northern Zhejiang, the festival commemorates Cao E (曹娥). The filial daughter of a shaman, the teenager died after unsuccessfully searching for her father in the Shun River; her dad had accidentally fallen into it. After both bodies were found, a temple was built in her memory. The Shun river was also renamed the Cao E River in her memory.

6. Some Chinese Historians Debate the Historical Associations

Chinese historians such as pre-modern author Wen Yiduo (闻一多) debate the association of Qu Yuan with the Dragon Boat Festival. Wen, for example, highlighted that Duan Wu Jie was already an important commemoration day in the State of Wu before Qu Yuan’s time.

Other historians posited that the act of “dragon boating” and dropping rice balls into rivers might have originated as prayer rituals for a plentiful harvest. Zhejiang is today located where the historical States of Wu and Yue were. The people of these ancient states also regarded themselves as the descendants of dragons. Both acts could thus be parts of an annual prayer ritual for good weather and plentiful harvests.

Lastly, the same historians theorize that over time, people began to visit friends and relatives using canoes on Duan Wu Jie. (Zhejiang province is full of rivers) They even held festive canoe races. These possibly gave rise to the modern associations we are familiar with today.

7. Dragon Boating Did Not Originate From This Festival

Further to the origins debate mentioned above, dragon boating in its modern form did not originate from Duan Wu Jie. Instead, the sport began as an annual competition between contending villagers in Guangdong. Guangdong itself is located thousands of miles from the above-mentioned Zhejiang.

Historians, sinologists, and anthropologists also believe that the sport began over two and half millennia ago, with the races themselves an important part of Chinese celebrations of the summer solstice. In turn, the races being usually held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month led to their current association with Duan Wu Jie.

Today, dragon boating is a popular sport throughout the world, with many non-Chinese countries having their own national teams.

Today, dragon boating is a popular sport throughout the world, with many non-Chinese countries having their own national teams.

8. The Signature Food of the Dragon Boat Festival Is Zongzi

Every important Chinese festival has associated festive foods. For the Dragon Boat Festival, this would be zongzi (粽子). These being pyramid-like glutinous rice dumplings with fillings, wrapped with flat leaves before steamed or boiled.

As highlighted above, zongzi are believed to have originated as rice dumplings desperately thrown into the Miluo River to prevent fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. Whether or not this is true, classic Chinese annals and compilations from the Han Dynasty onwards contain numerous mentions of the food, although it is often referred with alternate names.

Jump forth to modern times, zongzi are eaten and sold throughout the Chinese-speaking world, and not just during the Dragon Boat Festival. Expectedly, there are nowadays significant regional variations too.

To give some examples, the Jianshui zong (碱水粽) is intended as a dessert item and filled with sweet paste. On the other hand, the Guangdong zong (广东粽) i.e. Cantonese version is salty and looks more like a wedge.

Yummy Chinese zongzi wrapped and unwrapped.

Yummy Chinese zongzi wrapped and unwrapped.

Meaty filling within a zongzi.

Meaty filling within a zongzi.

9. The Festival Goes by Many Other Chinese Names

Given the many different “origins” of the Dragon Boat Festival, there are several different names for it in the Chinese language.

Some examples being:

  • Duanyang Jie (端阳节): The festival of the beginning of the sun.
  • Wu Ri Jie (五日節): The festival of the fifth day.
  • Tianzong Jie (天中節): The festival of the middle of the sky. A metaphor for the noon sun.
  • Zongzi Jie (粽子節): A colloquial name derived from the custom of eating zongzi.
  • Longzhou Jie (龙舟节): The dragon boat festival. This is not a traditional name, though. Instead, a direct translation of the English name.

10. Apart From Dragon Boating and Eating Zongzi, There Are Other Festive Activities

Other than boat races and the eating of rice dumplings, many other rituals and customs are associated with the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. For example, sachets full of insect-repelling herbs would be made and worn.

In Taiwan, there is also the unusual practice of “balancing” an egg at the stroke of noon, the practice itself known as li dan (立蛋). Doing so is believed to secure good fortune.

Similarly, in rustic Taiwanese communities, clean well water known as wu shi shui (午时水) would be drawn and drank at noon. Doing so is believed to be good for health. Clean water drawn from wells at this hour is also believed to be the strongest in yang i.e. positive energy, and the practice was mentioned as early as the Song Dynasty.

Lastly, Realgar wine was previously widely drunk and sprayed around homes on Duan Wu Jie, the connection itself made by dissolving Realgar (arsenic sulfide) in Chinese yellow wine. Believed to be effective insect repellent as well as capable of neutralizing poisons, children too young to ingest alcohol would have words written on their foreheads using the wine.

In modern times, though, medical concerns over the toxicity of Realgar wine resulted in the practice now under intense scrutiny.

11. Realgar Wine Is Indeed Deadly to Snakes!

Serving Realgar Wine during the Dragon Boat Festival was a key plot device in some versions of the classic Chinese myth, Madam White Snake. Unable to convince the story's protagonist i.e. Xu Xian that his wife is a snake spirit, the exorcist monk Fa Hai implored Xu to serve a glass of Realgar wine to her on Duan Wu Jie. Should she not be human, she would be forced to reveal her true form.

Believing that the wine would do his wife no harm, as it was commonly drunk, Xu Xian agreed and did as told. As Fa Hai predicted, Madam White was able to resist the wine but for a few hours and soon reverted to her serpentine form. The horrific spectacle also resulted in Xu Xian dying from shock. The quest to revive her husband then set in motion the next story arc of the legend.

Classic illustration of Xu Xian seeing the true form of his beloved wife. The episode is known as Duan Wu Jing Bian (端午惊变) in Chinese opera.

Classic illustration of Xu Xian seeing the true form of his beloved wife. The episode is known as Duan Wu Jing Bian (端午惊变) in Chinese opera.

12. Other East and Southeast Asian Countries Also Celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival is currently a public holiday in the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, Macau SAR, and Hong Kong SAR. For the PRC, though, it was only re-introduced as a public holiday in 2008 as part of efforts to revive traditional culture.

Other Asian countries with significant Chinese populations such as Malaysia and Singapore also celebrate the festival, although it is not designated a public holiday. In Singapore, for example, many Chinese households continue to prepare zongzi around the festive date. Related festive events such as exhibitions might also be held.

Lastly, countries such as Japan and Korea have their own versions of the festival. In Japan, the fifth of May is Children’s Day, and families with children would fly colorful flags of carps for good health. In Korea, prayers would be conducted together with the hosting of traditional wrestling matches.

Further Reading

© 2021 Ced Yong

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