After Eric spent last summer in Taiwan, I thought the Dragon Boat Festival was just a Chinese festival, but after looking into it I realized this is a worldwide event. I’ve done my research, broken it down into straightforward answers, and today I’m answering the big question “What is the Dragon Boat Festival?”
Who Celebrates It?
China, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, US, Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and others, particularly in Southeast Asia.
When Is It?
The Dragon Boat Festival is held on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar (the one you’re used to is the solar calendar). This year (2016) the holiday is on Thursday, July 9th.
Why Is It a Thing?
There’s a lot of different stories, but the most popular theory is about this famous poet named Qu Yuan, who was a massive patriot of China and served in a high office position. He disagreed with the king on a particular issue and was exiled because of it (mind you this was back in the year 300ish). He loved his country, but he felt they didn’t love him back. Years later he drowned himself by tying heavy rocks to his body and sinking himself in a big river. Locals who admired him raced in boats to save him or at least retrieve his body. They couldn’t find him, so they through balls of sticky rice in the water so the fish would eat them instead of his body. You think that’s a weird reason for a holiday? Me too.
Why Is It Probably Actually a Thing?
First of all, it’s around the time of the summer solstice. The days are long, the mosquitoes are real, and when is it ever a bad idea to have a festival? The sun is said to have masculine energy, as are dragons. So I guess lots of sun = manliness = dragon festival. Also, the 5th month is considered “poisonous” in the Eastern Farmer’s Calendar, so a lot of the traditions that happen during this festival are meant to ward off this evils associated with this month.
Remember how the locals threw sticky rice balls into the water so the fish wouldn’t eat that poet’s dead body? Well zongzi is primarily made of sticky rice (I have a YouTube video that features zongzi in it if you’re not sure what it looks like), and the Qu Yuan story is the reason it’s eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. Traditionally, you’re meant to throw zongzi into the water in commemoration of the famous poet. Nowadays, though, I hear people just eat it.
Drinking Realgar Wine
There’s a weird story about someone pouring realgar wine into the river that Qu Yuan’s body was in, but it includes a drunk dragon and it’s really weird, so I’m not gonna get into it. Realgar wine is yellow cereal wine made with powdered pesticide. Yeah, you read that right. Remember how I said the 5th month is considered poisonous? In traditional Chinese medicine, this wine is considered an antidote against poison. Ironically, it contains a fairly high amount of arsenic and a few people have been poisoned by it. It’s understandably not so common anymore.
Dragon Boat Races
This is probably the most popular and well-known activity associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. The origins have to do with the locals who raced out in their boats to save the poet’s body from the river. Dragon boats are basically just canoes that resemble a dragon, and they usually seat about 20 paddlers.
The last few days I’ve been noticing an increase in people walking around with huge stalks of leaves, so I wasn’t surprised to find out that this has to do with the festival. Mugwort and calamus are traditionally hung on or near the doorways of people’s homes around the time of the Dragon Boat Festival. These plants repel bugs, so the origins have to do with the poisonous festival/summer solstice aspect of the festival rather than the narrative about the poet. Also Chinese people believe hanging these leaves bring good luck to your home. What hanging token DOESN’T bring good luck, though?
Wearing Perfumed Cloth Bags
Traditionally, people will wear scented cloth bags during the Dragon Boat Festival to ward off evil spirits. Again, this has to do with the poisonous month thing, but depending on the scent choice it can actually help repel bugs, too.
Egg Standing at Noon
Okay, you’re going to have to open your mind for a nonsensical tradition right now. Around noon during the Dragon Boat Festival there are egg standing competitions held around the world. As in, you’re trying to get the egg to stand up vertically. Apparently if you can get it to stand at noon, it will bring you good luck, prevent disease and evil, and promote health and well-being. Idk guys. It’s just a thing.
What Actually Happens?
Like any other holiday, the Dragon Boat Festival is an excuse to gather, eat, and drink. From what I’ve seen and read, the actual modern day practice of the festival isn’t a whole lot different than the 4th of July. Family, food, and games makes for a great day no matter where you live.
Comment below if you’ve attended any Dragon Boat Festivals or if you know anything else about this festival. Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon 🙂