Dragon Boat Festival (龙船节), also known Duanwu Jie (端午节) falls on the fifth day on fifth lunar month of every year. This year, it corresponds to June 20. Since 2008, it has been considered a public holiday. Main activities during this time include eating zongzi (粽子 or steamed glutinous rice with various fillings wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves), drinking xionghuang jiu (雄黄酒, a kind of alcohol made from realgar) and watching dragon boat races.
There are many legends about the origins of the festival, but the most popular one tells that the festival was established to commemorate the death of the poet, Qu Yuan.
Qu Yuan, lived between 340 and 278 BC. He was a poet in the State of Chu. The State of Qin was trying to take control of Chu during that period, so Qu Yuan tried to strengthen Chu’s military forces.
However, he was opposed by some aristocrats, deposed and exiled by King Huai. In 278 BC, when Qin finally conquered Chu, Qu Yuan killed himself. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, he drowned himself in the Miluo River.
The people of Chu admired the poet’s actions, and threw zongzi and xionghuang jiu in the water to keep fish away from Qu Yuan’s body. Fishermen sailed their boats up and down the river, looking for him. And from this, the customs of dragon boat racing, eating zongzi and drinking xionghuang jiu came about.
Zongzi (粽子) are made of glutinous rice stuffed with fillings, then wrapped in bamboo or reed, leaves and tied with colored thread. The fillings vary region by region. In the north, the fillings are usually sweet: red bean paste, tapioca, or taro. In the south, they tend to be more savory. Fillings include duck egg, pork, chicken, or mushrooms.
Xionghuang jiu (雄黃酒), also known as realgar wine, is a Chinese liquor seasoned with realgar. The tradition of drinking xionghuang jiu is also related to the fact that Dragon Boat Festival marked the beginning of summer and the appearance of dangerous animals and evil spirits. Since xionghuang jiu contains arsenic sulfide (considered to be an antidote for poison), drinking it was meant to protect people from these animals and evil spirits.
The reason why dragon boats (龙舟) are dragon-shaped is that dragons in Chinese culture are considered rulers of rivers, lakes and seas. The fifth day of the fifth lunar month is when the sun is at its strongest. Depictions of the sun and the dragon are often used together to represent male energy, whereas female energy is linked with the moon and the phoenix.
This post first appeared on June 10, 2013 and has been slightly modified.