The Dragon Boat Festival is an annual Chinese festival that dates back thousands of years. It is on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar.
The “dragon boat” is a very long canoe that is built and decorated into the form of a dragon, paddled by a very large crew. Cities hold dragon boat races. These races symbolize patriotism and team integrity. To understand the purpose of dragon boat races, we need to trace back to a very ancient story. During the Warring States Period (476 BCE–221 BCE), there was a great poet by the name of Qu Yuan that lived in the State of Chu. He dedicated his whole life to advising and aiding his king in fortifying Chu. Yet, when the neighboring state of Qin conquered the capital of Chu, Qu Yuan decided to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Yangtze as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism. Recognizing his sacrifice and bravery, the people did all they could to mourn the loss of a great patriot. They wrapped rice in bamboo leaves as bait that they threw into the water so that the fish in the river would not eat the body of Qu Yuan but instead eat the rice balls. This food is now known as zongzi and is the most popular food of the Dragon Boat Festival.
In Chinese, the Dragon Boat Festival is called “端午节” (duān wǔ jiē, dyun1 ng5 zit3). “端” means “start,” and “午” means noon. So, this holiday observes the beginning of a transition to summer, which marks the onset of summer and is the longest day of the year.
The ancient Chinese believed that this period of time was also when evils were the strongest and people became ill the easiest. So, during this holiday, many traditions are aimed to ward off evil spirits. People hang bundles of Chinese wormwood on their front doors and by their windows, hoping that the refreshing fragrance of the herb would spew any sickness away. People also wear cloth sachets filled with herbs and spices that emit a lasting scent wherever they go. Another way people warded off evil spirits was by drinking a special tonic called Xionghuang wine, or realgar wine. Although it might sound daunting to us now, this wine was made by adding realgar, an arsenic sulfide mineral, to Chinese yellow wine. People not only drink the wine but also dab it on to experience its effects.
The Dragon Boat Festival’s multi-faceted self is hard to capture in just a couple of paragraphs, and many traditions may vary from region to region. It is truly one of the most magical festivals and very ahead of its time in its intent: a holiday for medicine, health, and wellness.
By Victoria Ma, 2022-2023 Student Docent Cultural Ambassador