The Dragon Boat Festival or Tuen Ng Festival (端午節) is a traditional festival with the central themes of warding off evil spirits and keeping diseases, pests, and drought away. Today, dragon boat racing is a sport that people all over the world participate in, but the origins and other traditional practices related to the festival are less known. Its history is rooted in the stories of 2 significant Chinese figures: Qu Yuan (屈原) and Wu Zixu (伍子胥). The date of this traditional public holiday varies on the Gregorian calendar. This year it falls on June 14, 2021.
What is the Dragon Boat Festival?
The Dragon Boat Festival is an important celebration that encompasses much more than its name describes. The dragon boat racing aspect could be described as the culmination of multiple practices meant to drive away evil energy and invite clean energy into your life. This holiday is also known as the Double Fifth Festival, as it occurs on the fifth day of the five-month lunar calendar.
Traditional practices for celebrating The Dragon Boat Festival include:
- Hanging portraits of the guardian deity Zhong Kui, a hunter of demons, in the home to keep dark spirits from entering;
- Hanging mugwort leaves, a Chinese herbal medicine, on the front door to protect the household from illness. Indeed, it’s been found that insects are repelled by mugwort and calamus plants;
- Giving children delicate pouches called “fragrant sachets” (香囊) which are sewn with silk cloth and thread and then filled with fragrances or herbs. Again, the effects are twofold: these bags are worn around the neck or tied to the front of clothing to protect the individual from evil spirits and to deter insects carrying infectious diseases;
- Standing an egg on its end for a day, which is believed to bring prosperity for the year.
These traditions are key in encouraging a healthy and especially prosperous year ahead.
The Dragon Boat Festival is mainly celebrated in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and within the Chinese community in other countries. While practices like hanging dried herbs and wearing perfume pouches may not be seen everywhere, activities like eating festive foods and dragon boat racing are certainly practiced all over the world. Different countries have various ways of celebrating, but they all unite around the core ideas of avoiding sickness and warding off evil spirits.
The history behind the Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival is believed to have its origin two thousand years ago in the Warring States period (475-221 BC). During this divisive ancient Chinese era, seven states fought for territorial control until the country was united under the Qin Dynasty.
Chinese figures Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu, and Cao E are said to have lived during this period, and the legends surrounding their lives are key to understanding the history and modern celebration of the festival.
Qu Yuan (屈原)
Qu Yuan was a poet and political minister in the Chu state characterized by his classical poetry and political devotion. As the king’s main advisor, Qu Yuan attempted to introduce strong political reform. Other officials became jealous of his high position and manipulated the king into exiling Qu Yuan.
During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote poems to show his love for his province. When the Chu state eventually fell to the Qin state, the story states that Qu Yuan was so devastated that he wrote one final poem and then drowned himself in a river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The legend goes on to say that sympathetic villagers rowed onto the river to retrieve his body.
Unable to find it, they rowed along the river hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare bad spirits away. They also threw lumps of rice into the water to distract fish from eating the body. Scholars write of his death as a form of martyrdom, a respectable symbol of his dedication to his home state. In this way, the traditions of boat racing and consumption of rice dumplings came about to honor the memory of Qu Yuan.
Wu Zixu (伍子胥)
A second origin story tells of Wu Zixu, the ancient premier of Wu state. People in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which is the former territory of the Wu state, more commonly attribute this story to the birth of the Tuen Ng Festival.
Wu Zixu was also from Chu state. His father was a tutor of the royal family, but he and his other son (Wu’s brother) were imprisoned on order of the king. Eventually, both were executed. Wu Zixu fled to Wu state in fear that he would experience the same fate. He eventually helped Wu state’s king conquer Chu state, avenging his family members’ execution and advancing in political rank. But when the king’s successor was bribed by an opposing state’s official (a state that Wu had advised the successor to target), Wu Zixu was commanded to commit suicide.
Wu’s body was thrown into a river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and locals held dragon boat races to show solidarity with him.
What to eat during Dragon Boat Festival?
In Hong Kong
The most traditional food related to the Dragon Boat Festival is the rice dumpling known as zongzi. The dumpling starts with sticky rice that is soaked in alkaline water. The sticky rice is wrapped in bamboo leaves in a triangular shape, filled with precooked ingredients, tied with string, and boiled in water. The common fillings for zongzi are egg yolk, pork, lotus seeds, green bean paste, peanuts, and other nuts.
The lumps of rice thrown into the river in the story of Qu Yuan have evolved into this elaborate, rich food that sees variations in fillings and bamboo leaf shapes throughout Asian countries.
In Hong Kong, people also eat fried sesame balls called jiandui. These pastries are made of glutinous rice flour that is then fried and coated with sesame seeds. A delightful eating experience, the outside of the jiandui is crispy and savory while the inside is chewy and sweet. The balls contain various fillings, like red bean paste or mochi (a Japanese twist).
In Taiwan and China
The variations don’t stop at jiandui; the food associated with this celebratory season changes depending on where the festival is located.
In Taiwan, multiple ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and baby shrimp are stir-fried and then steamed inside rice dumplings. In Northern China, the zongzi tend to be sweeter; in Southern China, the rice dumplings are salty and more rectangular; in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, people boil eggs in tea and dye them red to be hung in a bag around children’s neck for good luck.
Another culinary tradition during the dragon boat season is drinking realgar wine. Chinese yellow wine is combined with trace amounts of powdered realgar, a dark yellow arsenic sulfide mineral. Here again, the beliefs are both practical and symbolic; the wine is an antidote for poison and also thought to chase away evil energy.
What is the dragon boat race and why is it so popular?
The dragon boat race is the most exciting, colorful event during the Tuen Ng Festival. The famous dragon boat is a long, narrow boat painted with a Chinese dragon head and tail. The number of paddlers can stretch from 10 to 50, with the typical team consisting of 22 people. Along with the paddlers, there is also the leader at the bow beating the timekeeping drum and a steerer at the rear.
Teamwork is an essential factor as all the paddlers need to move in unison, following the rhythm of the beating drum. This ritual of the beating drum and synchronicity placates the rain gods so that they bring raindrops in the year to come, and also celebrates rice growth in the summer.
Since 1976, dragon boat racing has started to become more popular as the Hong Kong government under British rule marketed dragon boat racing as a sport to attract tourism. As the International Dragon Boat Federation was built in 1991, since then dragon boat racing has been practiced in lots of countries around the world. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Race attracts international athletes to compete every year and races have become so popular that lots of countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Germany have their own dragon races.
The Dragon Boat Festival has grown from a legend based on defending the home from evil spirits to an international tradition. The world has grown to share its praise and Hong Kong has embraced it wholeheartedly. The Dragon Boat race remains a sport of unity and an amazing festival to respect both the legends and the current culture surrounding it.
Where can I watch the races this year?
In 2021, you can watch races at the following locations:
- Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships at Stanley Main Beach, June 14, 8:00am – 4:00pm.
- CCB Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races and The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival at Central Harbourfront, June 14.
- Leo Fang Cup Land Dragon Boat Race 2021 (Facebook Live stream), June 13, 3:00pm – 4:30pm.
- Tai O Small Dragon Boat Race at Tai O Public Pier, September 12.
- 2021 Aberdeen Dragon Boat Race, October 3.
- 2021 Discovery Bay Dragon Boat Race, October 10.
Events are subject to change due to COVID-19. Always check official sites before heading to an event.