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All across China, racers set sail in dragon-shaped canoes to the sound of pounding drums. While the festival was borne as a tribute to national hero, it has now transformed into an athletic sporting competition which has also become popular in Japan, Vietnam and the UK.
The winning team is said to bring harvest and happiness to their home villages.
It’s one of the oldest annual events in China, dating back more than 2,000 years. It holds significant educational importance and since 2008 it has been celebrated as a public holiday. Moreover, in 2009 it was added to the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
It all goes back to Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) – one of China’s earliest poets and also the minister of the State of Chu. Opposed to the Qin dynasty, Qu Yuan actively encouraged China to strengthen its military in order to defend against the Qin, but was opposed by the nation’s aristocrats and eventually exiled by King Huai.
During this exile period he penned some of China’s most celebrated poems including Li Sao (The Lament), Tian Wen (Asking Questions to the Heaven), and Jiu Ge (Nine Songs). After finishing his final poem, Huai Sha (Embracing the Sand) – considered to be his masterpiece – and upon hearing that China was now conquered by the State of Qin, he drowned himself in the Miluo River.
The premise of the festival comes from the fisherman who sailed their boats up and down the river searching for his body to no avail. The people began to do this every year as a sign of respect, and as the boats resembled dragons in shape, the Dragon Boat Festival was born.
In Chinese this is written 端午节. Duānwǔ jié is pronounced ‘dwann-woo jyeah’.
The festival takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar every year. The ancient calendar is based on a combination of astronomy and geography and dates back to the 21st century BC.
When searching for Qu Yuan, the fishermen would throw eggs and bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water so that fish would eat that instead of the hero poet’s body. Over time, this developed into the tradition of eating zongzi (rice dumplings and eggs) during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Realgar wine is also the traditional drink of the festival; an alcoholic rice liquor which consists of fermented cereals and powdered realgar (a mineral). There’s an old saying in China that “Drinking realgar wine drives diseases and evils away!” and that’s exactly why it’s still drunk today during the festival. It’s said to be an antidote for poisons, effective at killing insects, and chasing away any evil spirits.
Other traditional practices during the festival include hanging healthy herbs on your front door, drinking nutritious drinks and hanging pictures of Zhong Kui – the legendary ‘vanquisher of evil’.
Then there’s the traditional egg balance – if you can manage to balance an egg upright at exactly 12:00 noon, the following year is going to be extremely lucky for you. Better get practising!