Head to Houhai on a warm Sunday afternoon to see people rowing long, skinny dragon-adorned boats. Dragon-boating is the first sign that Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Festival (端午节), is approaching.
There are several versions of the origin of Duanwu Festival, which takes place on the fifth of the fifth lunar month. The best-known story is of Qu Yuan, a great Warring States Period poet and the minister of the Southern Chu Kingdom who dedicated his life to helping his country. Despite Qu Yuan’s efforts, the ruling emperor of his time caused the kingdom’s demise by allowing the Qin armies to invade. Disappointed by his emperor and disconsolate at seeing his kingdom’s downfall, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River. When the people in the kingdom discovered the celebrated poet in the river, they threw zongzi (glutinous rice and date wrapped in bamboo leaves) into the water to distract fish from eating Qu’s body. In another effort to protect Qu’s body, the people took to their boats and scoured the river to search for his body and frighten the fish.
During Duanwu Festival, celebrated on May 28 this year, people in China eat zongzi and race in boats to remember Qu Yuan’s death. Dragons, creatures associated with good luck in China, decorate the front of the boats.
In addition to these main customs, some people who live along the Yangtze River like to drink wine during the Duanwu Festival, including a variety called xionghuang wine, made out of realgar powder (a semi-poisonous chemical that is used in Chinese medicine). According to legend, a pharmacist threw a jar of realgar wine into the river after Qu’s suicide in order to save Qu’s body from being devoured by fish.
Beijingers can celebrate Dragon Boat Festival this year by feasting on zongzi, which can be found in large supermarkets and restaurants in the beginning of May. You can also find the delicacy at Daoxiangcun, a snack chain store in Beijing, which has a selection of sweet and salty zongzi (stuffed with Chinese dates, Chinese ham or egg yolk) and at the bakery chain, Holiland. Chinese people traditionally give baskets of zongzi as gifts during this time.
Try your hand at racing a dragon boat at Houhai on Sundays from 3-5pm. When the summer days become longer, you can also race on Wednesdays. The Houhai boathouse is nestled on the northwest edge of the lake, a few minutes walk from Fu Ku restaurant. Alternatively, head to Longtan Park to see the dragon boat races on Longtan Lake, learn more about the history of the day and eat zongzi.