Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio
An abbreviated history and key items regarding the Dragon Boat Festival or Duan Wu [端午节]
Thanks to my Shanghainese friend, I have a clearer insight on the different aspects of the Dragon Boat Festival... and a growling stomach yearning for good food to eat!
The Dragon Boat Festival is a multi-layered fête celebrated in China and other countries with ethnic Chinese. The Chinese government officially declared it a holiday in 2007. The race festivities typically occur near rivers and ports.
The historical origins revolve around a minister and poet, Qu Yuan, who so loved his state that he drowned himself in the river (fearing dominion by the neighboring state of Qin). His poetry is cited in ancient texts but the language itself has been lost to history. To avoid the river fish eating his body, the townspeople threw food such as eggs and dumplings called "zongzi" into the river, all the while scouting the river for his remains. This is one event to commemorate during the Festival period.
Religious & Folk Origins
Religious/folk/agrarian origins: Another layer of the Festival reveals folk traditions that are alive and well in modern China. The Chinese have been racing for thousands of years. Typically, the Festival [五月初五] (or the 5th day of the 5th month) falls around mid-June. Regardless of the exact date, what you can count on is the start of warmer temperatures, and rice planting in south/central China, where this Festival originates. What do farmers do during this time?
The Dragon Deity
Ask for rain from the Dragon deity that watches over water. Although there are Mountain and Sea Dragons, even the Ni'an of Chinese New Year, their mythical role is to control water of all kinds: river, lakes and oceans of the earth as well as the water in the sky (hence the rain). Dragons [龙] traditionally are not seen as malevolent but beneficent. Dragons represent the Emperor, and the Chinese also like to associate themselves with the powerful Dragon (compared to the other ordinary animals of the Zodiac). Rain is needed for the rice crop, so the Dragon must be invoked.
The Cleansing Element
Putting aside crops for a moment, one can also use the boat races as a cleansing element as the summer is ushered in. The physical and mental effort necessary to race a "dragon boat" is said to keep disease away. For an interesting detailed description on the mechanics of "paddling" the boats, this writer encourages you to begin your research here. Crew lovers will love it!
(i) Regular folks who do not partake in the races will still "protect" and strengthen their bodies with a fortifying wine, translated as a "Realgar Wine." [雄黄酒] I do urge you to look up a fairy tale for mature audiences, called the "Legend of the White Snake". [白蛇传] It is about a man that fell in love with a changling sorceress. Part of the story takes place in Hangzhou, at the West Lake, relatively near Shanghai. All I will say is that sometimes, drinking (in excess?) will show a person's "true colors" or true form.
(ii) For young children, who do not participate in these demanding races, families would place small aromatic pouches with herbs, e.g. mint, to keep children healthy and safe. These pouches are worn continuously until they fall off (although they may also be placed bedside at night). This is Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM), which could be a whole different post.
(iii) Not only is the body cleansed, but living quarters are cleansed as well. With warmer temperatures arriving, agrarian peoples would routinely witness a certain group of five poisonous animals crawl into homes: snakes, centipedes, scorpions, geckos and toads. [蛇，蜈蚣，蝎子，壁虎，蟾蜍] These animals are considered physically dangerous (i.e. poisonous) but also harbingers of evil spirits. People would also hang mugwort leaves and calamus from doors and windows to help keep these animals at bay.