Cultures Revealed: Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

*This is the first of a monthly installment on Celergo’s blog that will highlight interesting and unique holidays or festivals throughout the world.

Common to many ancient civilizations, Chinese festivals are often scheduled around the lunar cycle and are generally considered some of the most colorful and noisy celebrations in the world, with thousands upon thousands of people joining in on the merriment.  Highlighted with fireworks, costumes, dancing, and parades, Chinese festivals are some of the best ways to experience the unique culture.

The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Duanwu Festival, is no exception.  The ancient event occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar (hence, it’s other nickname, The Double Fifth), which falls in May or June. The festival commemorates the death of a popular national hero, Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Mi Lo River over 2,000 years ago to protest against the corrupt leaders of the time. Qu Yuan was a famous poet and statesman during the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty and is regarded as the first author in China to have his name associated to his work (prior to that time all written poetry was done so anonymously). Due to his popularity, the villagers desperately tried to rescue Qu Yuan from drowning after he immersed himself in the river, but alas, were unsuccessful. However, the townspeople were so enamored by him that they began beating drums, splashing the surface with their paddles, and throwing rice in the water as to ward off evil spirits and hungry fish to protect his body. One legend says the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends shortly after his death and told them to wrap their rice into packages and throw into the river to keep the dragon away (a symbol of the Chinese empire and rulers of the time). A more traditional and common viewpoint is the villagers wrapped the rice in bamboo leaves to not only feed Qu Yuan in the afterlife, but also to protect the rice from lurking river inhabitants. Regardless, these dumplings became a traditional food known as zongzi and are still popular today. The act of racing to search for Qu Yuan’s body in boats gradually became a cultural tradition, which is now celebrated as the Dragon Boat Festival each year on the anniversary of his death.

Today the most common activities to commemorate the festival are eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and (of course!) racing dragon boats. The boats measure more than 10 meters long and are often painted in bright colors of red, white, yellow and black with ornately carved dragon heads and tails at each end. Over 20 participants row each boat in cadence with drumbeats and the assistance of a captain who waves a small flag to help coordinate the movements of the boatman. It has evolved into a fierce competition where each crew trains in earnest for the annual event. Although the festival is currently celebrated in many East and Southeast Asian countries, Duanwu is also celebrated as Poet’s Day in China to recognize Qu Yuan’s contributions as a renowned writer. The festival has long been celebrated as a staple of the Chinese culture, however, Duanwu was not recognized as a public holiday until 2008!

TOPIC: Festivals/Holidays
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