East Asia’s big summer holiday, with something for everyone
Cultures all over Earth celebrate the peak sun and short nights of summertime with feasts and festivals. In China this is also time to harvest the crop of winter wheat, and the second crop of rice. And as many cultures learned, the need to pull a whole village together for a brief but intense activity can be made easier by incorporating enjoyable diversions, religious rituals, and ceremonial recognition of ancestors.
Chinese semitropical weather also brings disease, snakes, biting flies and centipedes. Here the power of ritual and festival is used to deliver traditional remedies and measures to lessen seasonal scourges.
For similar reasons, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese cultures also have summer festivals, and since all these people used lunar calendars and traded with China, they all happen around the same dates, too.
Elements of the festival
On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (known as the Double Fifth), in towns and cities throughout China, dragonboat racing teams compete through the day in battles of speed and endurance, with scores of spectators cheering them on. The rowers on each highly-decorated boat are marshalled by a drummer pounding out rhythms to direct the speed and intensity. This music is joined by the chants of the rowers and the roaring shouts of the audience on-shore. The duan wu (dragon boats) are what give the festival its Mandarin name.
The marketplace is alive with vendors selling traditional foods, most famously the leaf-wrapped filled rice balls called zongzi, and beverages too, including xiong huang (realgar) wine. The wine and zongzi also get ceremonially tossed into the water, too.
Homes are cleaned, sprigs of mugwort and calamus are hung, as well as pictures of mythic guardian Zhong Kui, and children receive fabric pouches filled with fragrant herbs to wear to ward off evil. Families go for walks and visit their neighbors.
Fresh air, physical activity, and good cheer are all immunity-boosters of course. The herbs in the pouches are repellent to insects; the realgar in the wine and mugwort on the door are used as antivenom / anti-sting treatments. Calamus soothes bites and rashes. And a clean house keeps out insects, dust, and vermin - and the diseases all those things spread.
Multiple origin legends!
People always want a good story for their holidays, and there are several dramatic ones swirled around Duan Wu.
- Before recorded history, in the Neolithic Age, the Bai Yue people along the Yangtze River (also known as the Changjiang) worshipped dragons - taking dragon tattoos and sacrificing totems of dragons to honor their ancestors. No one is entirely sure what became of this tribe, but their idea that powerful, benevolent dragons lived in lakes and rivers became a fundamental point of Chinese mythology.
- A tale of religious intrigue! The modern Duan Wu festival was promoted and amplified by Confucian scholars to promote their code of piety to family, scholarship, and rulers at the time when Buddhism (an import from India) was rapidly becoming popular.
- In the ancient kingdom of Wu there lived a royal advisor named Wu Zixu, admired for integrity and vision, and credited with designing and building the beautiful city of Suzhou. In 484 BCE, the king ignored Wu’s correct advice on a political matter and the country suffered as a result. The king forced Wu to commit suicide, and had his body dumped into the river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
- In the Northeast - Zhejiang province has a story of maiden Cao E and her father, shaman Cao Xu. In year 143 CE, the father was conducting a ceremony to honor Wu Zixu when he fell into a river. Cao E searched the river for three days before going missing herself. Townspeople found both bodies on the fifth day. Cao E’s sacrifice and love for her father were honored with a temple - and by renaming the river for her.
- And the best known tale, from the kingdom of Chu (today’s Hunan and Hubei), centers on Qu Yuan (born 340 BCE), a poet, patriot, and adviser to King Huai during the turbulent era known as the Warring States Period. He was a populist - and a popular writer who spoke honestly, fought corruption, and argued for isolation from the growing empire of Qin. For this, certain elites opposed him - accused him of treason - and conspired to have him banished from the Chu capital. Even when a new king, Qingxiang, came to the throne, Qu Yuan would face exile yet again.
For 28 years Qu wandered the countryside, but during that time he continued to write and expose hypocrisy among the powerful. Under Qingxiang’s rule, Chu society disintegrated and an alliance was made with the Qin. The alliance was simply political cover, however, as Chu was methodically occupied, and in 278 BCE, the capital Yingdu was captured. (Qin, of course, would go on to defeat all the Warring States and bring about the first unified empire in China.)
His beloved country crushed by petty leaders inside and relentless invaders from outside, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning in the Miluo River (near today’s Changsha) - on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The local citizens scrambled to retrieve his body - racing out into the river in longboats, beating drums to scare off the fish, throwing rice and wine into the water to draw them away from the corpse.
While their country was absorbed and national identity erased, the locals continued to honor their fallen patriot each summer by re-enacting the drama with boat races, eating zongzi, and community festivals.
Zongzi can come in all different shapes and sizes, but are traditionally pyramid-shaped to represent the spears hurled by fishermen to keep the river creatures away from Qu Yuan’s body.
Fillings can include dates, nuts, fruit, meat, mushrooms, sweet potato, and more. The texture of the rice can be quite gummy - but every batch is different and each cook makes them differently. These can be made ahead of time and frozen, but are hard to mass-produce.
Untie and unrap the zongzi before eating; you can use the leaves like a wrapper (if you’re eating on-the-go) or take the rice ball out completely to set on a plate.
Even though the underlying point of Qu Yuan’s self-sacrifice was a protest against empire and control from Beijing, the festival remained a peoples’ favorite over thousands of years. Since 2008, it has been a public holiday in the People’s Republic, and most people get the day off. As a lunar calendar-based holiday, the date bounces around:
- 2015: June 20
- 2016: June 9
- 2017: May 30
- 2018: June 18
- 2019: June 7
- 2020: June 25
- 2021: June 14
The Chinese diaspora in the 19th and 20th centuries brought this festival with them to places like Malaysia and Singapore, Australia, Britain, Canada, and the USA.
In the West, since the 1990s the boat races and celebration are growing into a Pan-Asian festival (and beyond racial lines, too). Racing team efforts are well-suited for fundraising (often notably for cancer causes) and corporate sponsorship. An international league of dragonboat racing has been created with official match events around the world. Your local festival may not be held on the same day as Duan Wu, and many of those participating may not know the stories behind it, but it honors the sacrifices and loss of ancestors and heroes nonetheless.
- Our Dragon Boat Festival folder on Pinterest
- Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco - Dragon Boat article
- Dragon Boat Festival at Chinese Fortune Calendar
- Twin Cities Dragonboat Festival
- San Francisco Dragonboat Festival
- Miami Dragonboat Festival
- Vancouver Dragonboat Festival
- Hong Kong Dragonboat Festival
- Dragon Boats New South Wales
- New Zealand Dragonboat Festival