5 facts you didn’t know about the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

Chinese Dragon Boat Race taking place

A national holiday in China, the renowned Dragon Boat Festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. As the lunar calendar is used to set the date, the festival is celebrated on a different day every year. Although in general, it falls between the end of May and the end of June.

During China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, campaigns against traditional culture and customs caused the popularity of traditional festivals like the Dragon Boat Festival to decrease immensely.

However, in recent years, the festival has begun to regain its traditional place as an important holiday in Mainland China. Following the Chinese government’s attempts to promote traditional cultures, the Dragon Boat Festival reemerged as an official public holiday in 2008.

This year’s Dragon Boat Festival is taking place on Friday 3 June. We’ve compiled a list of 5 facts you probably didn’t know about the traditional Chinese holiday.

1. The festival has more than 20 different names

Regularly called the Dragon Boat Festival, the holiday has a number of different names. Each one with its own meaning and origins. In Mandarin, it’s called Duanwu Jie, meaning ‘the beginning of the mid-summer festival’. And in Cantonese, it’s called Tuen Ng.

Often referred to as Longzhoiu Jie (龙舟节) in Chinese. This is due to its close association with dragon boats. Dragons are extremely significant in Chinese culture. The two main activities during the festival are eating zongzi (rice dumplings) and boat races, both of which relate to dragons. Zongzi has long been thrown into rivers as offerings and sacrifices to the Dragon God on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

Other names include ‘Dumpling Festival’ and the ‘Double Fifth Festival’.

2. There are two main stories to explain the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival

Whilst there are many stories about the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival, there are two main stories that come up time and time again.

The most popular one is in commemoration of Qu Yuan, who was a poet and government official. During the Warring States Period of Ancient China, he was exiled. He drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, when the State of Chu fell to the State of Qin. Locals tried desperately to save him and recover his body but were unable to do so.

To commemorate Qu Yuan, people would beat drums and paddle out in boats on the same day each year, as they had done to keep fish and evil spirits away from this body.

The other story of origin relates to where the festival falls on the lunar calendar. Since ancient times, the fifth month has been considered unlucky. It’s known by some as the ‘month of poison’. Traditionally because the ‘five poisonous creatures’ would emerge during this month. Centipedes, scorpions, snakes, toads, and spiders would come out due to the warm weather and seasonal changes. As well as this, natural disasters and illnesses are common in the fifth month.

3. Rice dumplings are extremely popular during the festival

The most traditional food eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival is zongzi (粽子zòngzi /dzong-dzuh/). These can also be related to the story of Qu Yuan. It’s thought that lumps of rice (similar to zongzi) were thrown into the river to stop the fish from his body.

In the past, families would make these dumplings and pass them out as gifts. However, today only a few of the most traditional older family members choose to cook their own. Most people now buy them from restaurants and bakers.

Zongzi are made up of rice filled with meat, beans, and other things. They’re wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and formed into a triangle or rectangle shape. They’re then tied with soaked stalks or colourful silk cords. The flavours of zongzi differ from one region to another across China.

4. People participate and attend dragon boat races

As the name of the festival suggests, dragon boat racing is the most important activity of the national holiday. It’s thought to originate from people paddling out to find the body of Qu Yuan in the river.

However, there’s another explanation. Dragon boat racing can be traced back more than 2,000 years. It was a way to worship the Dragon God or Water God.

The wooden or fibreglass boats are shaped and decorated to look like Chinese dragons. Boats tend to vary in size depending on the region and usually need around 30-60 people to help paddle them. During the races, teams paddle in harmony quickly, accompanied by the sound of a beating drum. It’s said that the winning team will have good luck and happy lives for the year to come.

The most famous races take place in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.

5. Dragon boat racing has been developed into a sport

Over the years, dragon boat racing has developed into a sport, with a variety of rules and regulations. Divorced from most of its cultural associations with the traditional Chinese holiday. This sport has recently gained further popularity around the world, including in the United States. Races have since been held in big cities such as New York and Chicago.

Want to learn more about the Dragon Boat Festival, Charing Cross Library will be hosting a cultural fair on 5 June where you’ll get more insight into this Chinese tradition.

SOAS Language Centre offers quality teaching in a wide range of languages including Chinese to SOAS students and the general public. They also provide bespoke language training for diverse organisations. They have proven expertise in making the learning of languages practically useful, highly enjoyable and accessible to people from all walks of life. SOAS staff and students get a 25% discount and alumni get a 10% discount on all short language courses.

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