Today is Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday in China as well as several other Asian countries.
What is Dragon Boat Festival? Does it include dragons?
No. Boats though, yes. You’re probably going to ask–
OK, let’s take this from the beginning.
During the Warring States period in the state of Chu there lived a minister named Qu Yuan, a patriot whose love of country is evident in his poems. Because the Warring States period was essentially China’s Game of Thrones, Qu Yuan fell victim to political intrigue and was banished for refusing to support his king’s alliance with the powerful and heavy-handed House of Lannister state of Qin. He jumped into the Miluo River after learning that Chu had fallen in 278 BC.
Out of all that, it’s Miluo that has your attention? It’s a river. You can go visit yourself:
There must also be a temple or something dedicated to Qu Yuan, right?
There are several. Here’s a popular one in Hunan province:
Now where was I…
Oh, right. The date of Qu Yuan’s fateful jump was the fifth day on the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar, which is why the festival is also called the “Double Fifth Festival.” At this point, so beloved was Qu Yuan as a poet and paragon of virtue that locals raced — via boats — to save his drowned body, giving rise to the tradition of racing boats.
It shouldn’t surprise you to know that dragon boat races are held on the Miluo River each year. Go to the 4:34 mark in the video below (Youku version here)… look at them go!
Why are they “dragon” boats?
I wasn’t quite finished, but… fine, sidebar. Dragon boats are so-called because of the way they’re decorated — and have been decorated for thousands of years, thanks to the dragon’s status in Chinese mythology. Marinus Willem de Visser, in his book The Dragon in China and Japan, tells us the earliest dragon in China was “a water animal, akin to the snake, which [sleeps] in pools during winter and arises in spring.” They are the gods of thunder and rain, they presage the birth of emperors and sages, are mourned when they leave and celebrated when they arrive, are the source of calamity and high fortune, and more of less can do anything they want.
Since they’re water-dwelling creatures, naturally they became ornaments carved onto the fronts of big ships, both for aesthetics and superstition. A tidbit via the Smithsonian:
To ensure a good harvest, southern Chinese would have asked the dragons to watch over their crops, says Jessica Anderson Turner, a Handbook of Chinese Mythology contributor who holds a Ph.D. in folklore from the Indiana University. They would have decorated their boats with ornate dragon carvings, “and the rowing was symbolic of the planting of the rice back in the water,” Anderson Turner explains.
Eventually, dragon boat races became Song Dynasty spectacles used for military recruitment and training. That tradition carried on even after the Mongols invaded, and now dragon boat racing clubs can be found all over the world, overseen by the International Dragon Boat Federation.
That’s a long sidebar.
If I wasn’t so rudely interrupted, what I wanted to say was, at the same time that boats appeared to “race” one another after Qu Yuan’s fateful leap, locals threw sticky rice dumplings (zongzi) into the river to keep fish from nibbling away at Qu Yuan’s body, giving rise to the tradition of eating zongzi on this day.
Look at that! Rice and meat, wrapped in bamboo, served with white sugar. Mmmmmmm…
Are zongzi any good to eat?
Sort of. Some are bad! The egg yolk zongzi, for instance, I find unpalatable. But to each his own. Generally there’s nothing upsetting about zongzi, which are filling and generally less pasty and dry than mooncakes (an unfortunate tradition of the Mid-Autumn Festival, but that’s another story).
Also, pandas seem to like them:
What else can you tell me about Qu Yuan? He seems badass.
He’s all right. Here’s an illustration:
Qu Yuan’s work — mainly the poetry collection Chu Ci — will live on forever, as the man is a household name. Here’s a snippet from his final poem:
Many a heavy sigh I have in despair,
Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time
I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix chariot,
And waited for the wind to come,
To soar up on my journey.
What do people do during this holiday?
They prepare zongzi, of course; race boats on the river. I don’t know, what do people do on long weekends? Take trips. Drink a lot, probably.
Drinking sounds like a good idea right about now.
I’ll leave you to it. Happy Dragon Boat Festival!
We highlight our top stories each week in an email newsletter that goes out every Monday - hot, fresh, and straight to your inbox.
Don't worry, we don't spam