The Duan Wu (Dragon Boat) Festival is a traditional festival and public holiday in China. Also known as the “Zhongxiao Festival”, it occurs near the summer solstice and this year falls on 30th May. The festival is celebrated with the preparing and eating of zongzi, drinking realgar wine and racing dragon boats.

Traditions from Ancient China

Even as a native Chinese, when it comes to Duan Wu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival), all I can think of is to have some ZongZi (a snack made of different kinds of rice with fillings in it, covered by lotus leaves) and remember what this holiday is all about. To evoke a wonderful spirit from ancient China, Qu Yuan, people would have Dragon Boat racing on their local river. This is what I have experienced and have been told from the day I was a little boy. However, to some degree, I felt somewhat ashamed for not knowing the background to this traditional holiday that has lasted for thousands of years.

ZongZi – a family tradition

I can still taste the ZongZi my oldest aunt made. When I was a primary school and Junior High student, every time I went to my oldest aunt’s, she’d give me a LOT of the ZongZi she made all by herself; they had the sweetest taste in the world to me. And her two sons, my cousins, would make sort of a joke by complaining something like: “Mom you’re giving a lot of your ZongZi out, what about us?!“

I can still picture this scene now. And for me, nothing was better than having a ZongZi or two during the luxurious breaks between exams!

What’s interesting about this past Duan Wu Festival was that my aunts and my mom actually made ZongZi together (which those of us from the younger generations happy to sample it for them!). An American friend I met at an English Corner texted me, asking me something about the Dragon Boat Festival that very day I was with my relatives. These two events were like a combination of the East and the West!

Sharing with a foreign friend

As a native Chinese, I did feel that this holiday was significant and that I could easily get into the spirit of the festival. But when a non-Chinese friend shows interest in getting to know your culture, you want to try to be able to answer their questions! So I looked up the history of this ancient holiday and used my limited English to try and explain the story behind the festival. And it turned out that it is really meaningful – as all the traditional holidays probably are in our modern “global village”. But still I felt something much deeper this time, so I guess on some level I need to thank this enthusiastic American friend.

The different versions and traditions of the Duan Wu Festival are all centred around the Chinese people’s spirit: loyalty, patriotism, fighting against evil etc.; also it has to do with the celebration of “the Dragon’s Festival” and this is part of the reason for the Dragon Boat racing. However, the most widely accepted reason for the event is the story of Qu Yuan, and I guess that’s why I’ve been “told about the story” since I was very young.

In memory of Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan was an extremely brilliant and kind minister in one of the biggest kingdoms known as Chu around 270 BC, before the very first feudalistic dynasty Qin was founded. Qu Yuan at that time strongly recommended the King of Chu to value the talents and focus on education, as well as to increase the military strength so that Chu Kingdom would gradually become stronger and stronger. Also he recommended that Chu should work together with another big kingdom known as Qi, to protect themselves from Qin which was getting much more powerful.

However the aristocrats of the Chu Kingdom strongly disagreed with what Qu Yuan recommended for their own interests, so they trapped Qu Yuan by convincing the King that Qu Yuan was doing something bad to the Chu country. Sadly the King believed what the aristocrats had told him and got rid of Qu Yuan by banishing him to a remote area in the Chu country. During this time, Qu Yuan wrote lots of famous poems and pieces of works such as Li Sao, Tian Wen and Jiu Ge, which influenced generations due to their amazing content. So Duan Wu Festival is also known as “the Poets’ holiday”.

In the year 278 BC, Chu’s capital city was conquered by the strongest Kingdom, Qin. When Qu Yuan heard of this, he was devastated but he refused to betray his motherland, so after finishing his final piece of work, Huai Sha, on 5th, May (on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar), he held onto a rock and sank into the River of Miluo (in Hunan Province today) and thus ended his life in a solemn way.

It was believed that the people of the Chu Kingdom were in great anguish for Qu Yuan’s death and went to the River of Miluo to remember him. The fishermen searched the river trying to get Qu Yuan’s body back. One of the fishermen took food such as rice pastes and eggs and threw them into the river so that the fish, shrimps and crabs etc. would eat them and being full, wouldn’t eat Qu Yuan’s body. Others around him followed suit. One old doctor poured a jar of Xiong Huang wine into the river because he hoped the wine would also protect Qu Yuan’s body from the dragon in the river. People then worried that the rice pastes would be eaten by the dragon, so they used big leaves and colourful strings to cover the rice pastes. This became a tradition and is how ZongZi came about and why people have Dragon Boat racing today. Unfortunately I’ve never witnessed a real race here in my city: again, thanks to a busy exam schedule!

A new found inspiration

I think even today, Qu Yuan’s story is still inspirational in many areas here in mainland China, the very spirit of the story, whether it’s 100% “true” or not, is something we really need to reflect on, especially when we deal with difficulties in our own lives.

When I was in Changsha, a southern city in Hunan Province, I also experienced the different way the southerners would make ZongZi, which as a northerner, I could never really appreciate. So I guess I just like the ZongZi that my aunt made me too much. This year I was lucky to have those ZongZi my mom and aunts made, and felt somewhat fulfilled and happy texting the American friend back about this holiday. Maybe next year I will see one of the Dragon Boat races myself and remember what this holiday is all about and what that means to me. I also enjoy sharing part of my cultural traditions with friends from all over the world.

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