The Dragon Boat Festival is a widely celebrated Chinese holiday that occurs annually on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This year’s festival takes place on June 12. The festival is celebrated not only in China but also in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.
The most popular events of the festival are boat races contested by teams of rowers in dragon shaped boats. Traditionally constructed from teak, the dragon boats are decorated with bright designs and can range from 40 to 100 feet in length and fit up to 80 rowers. The front of the boat is designed to look like the open mouth of a dragon, while the back end resembles a scaly tail. Before the race the eyes on the boat’s dragon are painted to “bring the boat to life”.
It is said the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the death of the poet, Qu Yuan, who ended his own life by drowning himself on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 278 BCE. The story goes that Qu Yuan attached a heavy stone to his chest and jumped into the Miluo River. Local citizens rowed out in boats to in attempt to save Qu Yuan but failed (another version goes they rowed out to retrieve his body).
Another part of the legend tells that the local people threw rice-filled bamboo leaves into the Miluo River in the hope that the fish would eat the rice instead of the body of Qu Yuan. This custom continues today but has been supplemented with the tradition of eating rice filled dumplings, Zongzi, on the day of the festival.
A traditional beverage during the Dragon Boat Festival is realgar wine. Realgar is an ancient medicine in China so drinking realgar wine was believed to ward off disease. This drink seems less healthy today as realgar is in fact a compound of arsenic.
The day of the dragon boat festival is a time for the practice of other customs in addition to racing. These customs include:
- Attaching healthy herbs to doors and drinking nutritious beverages in order to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from evil and disease
- Fetching well water at noon in the belief it will protect you from sickness
- Trying to stand an egg on its end at noon to signify that the following year will be a lucky one
- Having children decorate their clothes with fragrant pouches made with five-color silk thread to protect them from evil
The dragon boat festival is an important time of the year for the people of China and other Chinese communities. Parents pass down traditions to their children and communities celebrate sacred customs together that signify luck, prosperity and health. Each facet of the holiday is richly steeped in the history of China.