What is the Dragon Boat Fesival?
The Dragon Boat Festival is the official People's Republic of China's English translation but it is also widely known as "the Duanwu Festival".
The festival occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional lunar Chinese calendar, and this is the source of its alternative name "The Double Fifth Festival".
Because it is on a lunar calendar the festival date varies yearly on the Gregorian calendar. In 2018 it will be celebrated from June 16th to June 18th.
Where did it originate?
The festival commemorates the death of poet and minister Qu Yuan (340-278bc) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty. Qu served as a member of the Chu royal house. When the King decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance.
During his exile, Qu Yuan moved from political life and wrote a lot of poetry, becoming well respected in his local community. Twenty-eight years after his exile, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. Qu Yuan was so saddened by this loss he committed suicide, drowning himself in the Miluo River.
The locals, who admired Qu Yuan, raced out in boats to try and save him, or at least rescue his body. When they could not find his body, the locals dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan's body. This is where the festival origins of preparing and eating zongzi comes from.
How is it celebrated today?
Dragon Boat Racing
The most popular activity of the Dragon Boat Festival is, not surprisingly, dragon boat racing! The origin of this part of the celebration is traced to when locals paddled out in their boats to scare the fish away and recover Qu Yuan's body. The dragon symbolism is used because of the traditional Chinese belief they are the sons of the dragon.
Eat some Zongzi!
Preparing and eating Zongzi with family members is a notable part of the Dragon Boat Festival. Traditionally, Zongzi is wrapped in leaves of bamboo, lotus or banana which gives a special aroma and flavour to the sticky rice and fillings. Northern regions of China prefer sweet zongzi, with fillings like bean paste, dates and nuts while southern regions of China prefer savoury zongzi.
Foods related to 5
The 'wu' in Duanwu sounds very similar to the number 5 in Chinese so many regions have traditions based around foods relating to the number 5. Guangdong has the tradition of eating congee made from 5 different beans.
Realgar wine, also known as Zionghuang wine, is made from Chinese yellow wine dosed with powdered realgar. Realgar is often used as a pesticide against mosquitoes and other insects during the hot summers and as a common poison antidote.
5 Coloured Silk Threaded Braids
In certain regions, parents will braid 5 colours of silk thread into bracelets for their children to wear on the day of the festival. The bracelets are believed to help ward off bad spirits and disease.
Hanging Calamus and Wormwood on Doors and Windows
There is an old saying "hang willow branches at Qingming festival, hang calamus and wormwood at Duanwu festival". People will hang them to repel insects but it is also believed to dispel evil and bring health to families, especially children.
As with many festivals and traditions, exact celebrations can vary across regions and Beijing has some of its very own. You'll find a lot of vendors selling cherries and mulberries, which are believed to prevent the unconscious consumption of flies throughout the year.
All food shops will sell "the five poison cake", a rose pie where the images of the five most poisonous creatures, scorpions, frogs, spiders, centipedes and snakes, are inscribed.
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