Life in Shanghai

The Dragon Boat Festival and the Legend of Qu Yuan

WRITTEN BY Courtney Visser ・ 25 June, 2020

With Dragon Boat Festival happening tomorrow, I wanted to do a bit of research on the history and traditions behind the holiday. Besides knowing that people do dragon boat racing and that they eat those delicious sticky rice dumplings, I didn’t know much else.

What is the Dragon Boat Festival?

The Dragon Boat Festival or Duānwǔjié is a traditional Chinese holiday that falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar; this year the holiday is on the 25th of June according to the Gregorian calendar.
This month was considered unlucky in Chinese culture as people believed that natural disasters and illnesses were common during this time. In order to get rid of any misfortune, people would put calamus, mugwort, pomegranate flowers and garlic above their doors. This custom is slowly disappearing in modern China, but people still observe this time to dispel disease, and invoke good health.

There are a number of traditions that are still practised over this holiday and I wanted to know the history and meaning behind them.

Eating Sticky Rice Dumplings:
These traditional Dragon Boat Festival dumplings or zòngzi are made of glutinous rice, filled with meats, beans, and other fillings. The rice dumplings are wrapped in triangle or rectangle shapes in bamboo or reed leaves and tied with soaked stalks or colourful silky cords. The flavours are usually different from one region to another across China.

Drinking Realgar Wine
Back in the day, it was believed that this wine was an antidote for all poisons and driving away diseases, insects and evil spirits. The wine is made from fermented cereals and powdered realgar. I had to google what that was, and was quite taken aback when I read that realgar is a compound of arsenic. Yes, you read right, arsenic. But upon further reading, this compound isn’t as lethal or as easily absorbed by the body…but I’d stay clear just to be safe.

Wearing Perfume Pouches
These little colourful silk bags are prepared before the festival, usually by parents for their children. The pouches are filled with various herbs, medicines and fragrances and tied to the front of the child’s garment or hung around their neck with a string. It is said that they protect them from evil.

Dragon Boat Racing
This is the most important tradition of the whole festival, and has become quite a competitive sport. The dragon-shaped boats are about 30 to 40 metres long and need 30 to 60 people to paddle it. The paddlers harmoniously and hurriedly propel the boat to the sound of beating drums. It is said that the winning team will have good luck and a happy life in the following year.

How did Dragon Boat Festival Start and Why is it Celebrated?

This festival dates back 2000 years, making it one of the oldest festivals in the world, and commemorates the great poet Qu Yuan who lived during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Qu Yuan was a state member of Chu and was exiled by the king for suggesting the Chu ally with the neighbouring state of Qi. Upon hearing that his homeland had been invaded by the Qin, he jumped into the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month. The Chu people, who admired Qu Yuan for his loyalty and integrity, threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish so they would not eat the body of their poet hero. They also took their boats out and started hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare evil spirits away.

There are numerous creeks in and around Shanghai to view the dragon boat races, but the big one is always on Suzhou Creek; a short bullet train out of the city. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has affected most of our travel plans this year, even within China so leaving Shanghai isn't something we can really do at the moment. But with our day off we can still part take in the celebrations, explore the city and eating a zòngzi or three.

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