How Did the Dragon Boat Festival Originate?
The Tale of Qu Yuan
There are slight variations for the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival, but all tell more or less the same tale of Qu Yuan, one of China’s earliest poets.
Most legends agree that Qu Yuan (pronounced Chew Yewen) was a minister in one of China’s ancient kingdoms. Qu Yuan was lauded as a very intelligent and fair man, but his fellow ministers disapproved of his policies. They convinced the king to banish Qu Yuan from the kingdom. In exile for many decades, Qu Yuan wrote numerous poems about his love for his country (Stepanchuk and Wong; Simonds, Swartz, and the Children’s Museum, Boston).
One day, Qu Yuan heard that his beloved kingdom’s capital city had been destroyed in war (another version says that he one day realized that both escaping and returning to his kingdom were impossible while looking at his home from a dragon boat). Greatly saddened, Qu Yuan composed a famous poem called the Lament on Encountering sorrow while walking along a river, and disappeared (some accounts list Qu Yuan as choosing to end his life by drowning) (Stepanchuk and Wong; Simonds, Swartz, and the Children’s Museum, Boston).
This is where the narrative diverges more significantly. One legend says that villagers where Qu Yuan was banished got into boats and looked for Qu Yuan in the river, with no success. They then threw rice into the river so that fish would eat the rice and leave Qu Yuan in peace.
Another account says that the villagers threw rice into the river for Qu Yuan’s soul to enjoy.
Yet another account says that one day, there was a fisherman who threw rice into the river to catch some fish (or for River God, depending on who is telling the story). The fisherman didn’t catch any fish but did hear someone call out that it was hungry. The same thing happened for two days again. On the third day, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared to the fisherman, telling him that the dragon who dwelt in the river was eating all of the rice. Qu Yuan asked that the fisherman send him rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and wrapped in black, green, red, yellow, and white strings (in order to scare away the dragon). After obeying Qu Yuan’s orders, the fisherman always caught nets and nets of fish (Simonds, Swartz, and the Children’s Museum, Boston; Stepanchuk).
Arguably the most iconic aspect of the Dragon Boat Festival (after the dragon boats, of course) is zongzi, a type of snack involving rice, bamboo leaves, and various fillings. The specific shape and filling for zongzi vary from region to region, but you’re most likely to see zongzi that are shaped like pyramids.
Zongzi can be filled with sweet bean paste, peanuts, meats, shrimp, mushrooms or any other number of delectable fillings. This center is enclosed by a healthy portion of glutinous rice, which is in turn wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with twine (some people recommend colored twine, but I’ve seen many people use white butcher twine).
There are practically as many styles of zongzi as there are villages in China, so I would recommend checking out a few different zongzi recipes online to see which one sounds the most appetizing for you! As for my personal favorite, I’m rather partial to zongzi stuffed with red bean paste and sprinkled with sugar – so delicious!
According to folklore, those who can balance an egg at noon on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival will have good luck for the rest of the year.
It is believed that since this is the summer solstice (according to the Chinese lunar calendar), the egg may be able to stand upright due to special solar power. As a fun cultural and scientific activity, why not trying balancing an egg to see who will have good luck this year.
You can celebrate Dragon Boat Festival by doing these activities.
Dragon Boat Races
There are several possible origins for the dragon boat races.
It believed that dragon boat races were held to commemorate the search for Qu Yuan, who drowned in the river. They may also have been held to honor the Dragon God, who was in charge of rivers and rainfall, so as to ensure a bountiful harvest of rice.
Yet another possible origin is that the ceremony was used to mimic answers visiting and helping the rice harvest.
Boat rowers and dragon boat were believed to represent deceased ancestors and the mighty water dragon, respectively. The rowers would row in the direction of the rice fields where the rice had recently been transplanted. These transplanted rice seedlings were placed in flooded fields, with the “drowned” rice seen as being in a similar state to those who had died by drowning, so its spirit would be summoned by the symbolic ancestors (the rowers). The dragon boat racing also represented one group trying to make sure that the ancestors of another group didn’t negatively impact the rice harvest.
Ancestors would then take away misfortune to the land of the dead, and people would offer food for their journey home.
While most of us don’t have the training or physique to participate in full scale races, you may want to see if you areas is having races or try making your own dragon boats using any number of the templates online.
Celebrating Dragon Boat Festival With Kids
Some common traditions which would make great education crafts include:
Making a Five Colored Bracelet or Ribbon
It was once common practice for families to gift ribbons or bracelets made of five colored- thread or silk . But they weren’t any five colors; the colors were representative of the Five Elements, which represented the cycle of creation and were thought to keep bad spirits and luck at bay. The colors were black for water, blue for wood, red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal. Not only were zonzgi originally tied with threads of these colors, but also hair ribbons. For extra helping avoiding bad luck, why not wear clothing using these colors only?
Create a Bag of Fragrant Herbs For Good Luck
It was common tradition for people to wear small pockets of herbs and spices to keep away misfortune. It is believe that these sachets could also ward of sickness and keep ying and yang in balance. Some people would also hang herbs from their houses. Common herbs include garlic, mugwort, and sweet flag, with sweet flag and mugwort being popular because they look like swords and tigers, respectively
Decorate Your House with Protective Animals
The common name for these five animals is a bit of a misnomer. The “Five Poisons” include snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards, and toads and sometimes the spider. They were decorated on almost any surface imaginable, from clothing to desserts and more. It was believed that by decorating items (or oneself) with these animals, one could avoid bites from these dangerous animals or even use their combined power to combat other poisons that one may encounter.
Clackers (similar to castanets) were used to add emphasis when singing songs or telling stories, make a simple pair of castanets (Simonds, Swartz, and the Children’s Museum, Boston).
How will you and your little ones celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival?
Swartz, Leslie, and The Children’s Museum, Boston. “The Dragon Boat Festival: The Fifth Day of the Fifth Moon.” Moonbeams, Dumplings, & Dragon Boats. By Nina Simonds. N.p.: Gulliver, 2002. 46-57. Print.
Stephanchuk, Carol. “Dragon Boat Festival.” Red Eggs & Dragon Boat: Celebrating Chinese Festivals. N.p.: Pacific View, 1994. 34-40. Print.
Wong, Charles. “The Dragon Boat Festival (5th Day, 5th Moon) Duanwu Jie.” Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts. By Carol Stepanchuk. N.p.: China & Periodicals, 1992. 40-50. Print.
Taylor Barbieri is the founder of Little Linguini, a website that offers private one-on-one language coaching in Chinese to children ages 5 to 17 and their families. After discovering her love for languages in high school (and studying more languages than she can remember!) Taylor made it her mission to share this passion with others. In late 2017, Little Linguini will begin debuting courses about China’s culture and history as well.