On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday last week, those of us who live in China got to enjoy three days off for the public holiday commemorating the “Dragon Boat Festival”. For many Chinese people, this meant having the chance to travel back to their hometowns to visit their families. For others, it meant the opportunity to stay at home and relax for a few days before going back to their hectic schedules. For us at InternChina and many of our interns it meant: road trip!
But… what exactly is the Dragon Boat Festival and why is it celebrated in China? Most of us foreigners have never heard of this holiday before, and even those who have lived here for a few years know very little about it, other than that it has a cool name and it means not having to work for three days.
The name in Mandarin for Dragon Boat Festival is “Duanwu Jie”, and in Cantonese it is “Tuen Ng”. As it happens, it is not only celebrated in China but also in many other East- and Southeast Asian regions, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
While in 2013, for example, the festival occurred on the 12th of June (and we also had the 10th and 11th off), there is no set date for the holiday on the Gregorian calendar, which is the one used in western countries. Rather, it is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, falling on the 5th day of the 5th month, which is usually at the end of May or beginning of June.
There is no consensus regarding its origins, and there are numerous legends which, depending on the region, are said to be the source of the festival. The most popular story, however, revolves around Qu Yuan, considered by some to be China’s first highly renowned poet. During the Warring States period, he was exiled from the State of Chu – of which he was minister – for opposing the ruling aristocracy in an effort to protect Chu against the Qin State. When the Qin invaded the capital, he committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.
Wanting to pay their respects to Qu Yuan, the people of Chu set their boats on the river and threw zongzi – glutinous or “sticky” rice triangles wrapped in bamboo leaves – into the water to feed the fish and keep them from attacking his body. This is said to be the origin of the dragon-boat-racing and zongzi-eating traditions that customarily occur on this day. Other customs of this holiday include drinking realgar wine and tying perfume pouches to children’s clothing as well as, of course, the mandatory firecrackers to ward off evil spirits.
Dragon Boat Festival Today
An interesting fact about Dragon Boat Festival is that, despite being a culturally important holiday celebrated widely across China, it was not recognised as a public holiday by the Chinese government until 2005. For many young Chinese, this meant properly celebrating the festival for the first time; for the older generations, it meant a long-overdue recognition of the importance of preserving Chinese traditions and culture in a rapidly-changing, globalised world.