Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and is one of the four main Chinese festivals. Treat yourself to some Zongzi, the traditional food associated with Dragon Boat Festival, while reading about the festival, its origins, and traditions.
Known as Dragon Boat Festival in the West, the festival has several names in Chinese. The most common one is 端午节 (Duānwǔjié) which translates as “festival of the beginning fifth month”. Because of its date on the fifth day of the fifth month, it is also called “double five festival”, written either as 重五节 or 重午节 (pronounced Chóngwǔjié in either case). Apart from these date-oriented names, there are many more names, among which 龙舟节 (lóngzhōujiē) “Dragon Boat Festival” and 解粽节 (xièzòngjié) “Festival of unwrapping Zongzi” hint at important traditions associated with the festival. So then, how did racing dragon boats and eating Zongzi become part of this festival?
If you want an easy answer to that question, then Chinese history is not for you. Because in fact, there are several conflicting stories being told about the origin of this festival, either one of which sounds as plausible or implausible as the other. Decide yourself which one of the three below you like, or make up your own with the essential elements of dead bodies, a river, boats and rice.
The first story is about the poet Qu Yuan, who lived from 340-278 BC. Originally serving as an advisor to the kingdom of Chu, jealous officials slandered him. This caused his exile to the South of China where he wrote most of his famous poetry. When in 278 the State of Qin conquered the capital of Chu, Qu Yuan was so grieved that he committed suicide by drowning himself in a river. Villagers raced to rescue him with their boats, and when they found him dead, they threw rice into the water in order to keep the fish from eating his corpse. Thus, boat racing and eating rice balls (Zongzi) during Dragon Boat festival are said to commemorate Qu Yuan’s death.
The second story centres around Wu Zixu who lived in the fifth century BC. He was a trusted advisor to the State of Wu until King Helü died. He did not gain the favour of the new king and after his advice was rejected, he was forced to commit suicide and his body was thrown into the river. In memory of Wu Zixu, locals sympathizing with him held annual dragon boat races which are said to be the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival.
On a different note, the third story is about the girl Cao E who lived in the second century AD. When her father fell into a river, Cao E desperately tried to find him. After five days, the locals found her and her father’s dead bodies. To commemorate her act of filial piety, a temple was built and the river renamed into Cao E River. Also, an annual dragon boat race was held on the fifth day of the fifth month, which became Dragon Boat Festival.
Preference of one of these stories above the other varies according to the region in China you find yourself in. Wherever you are, however, you will not be able to avoid the most universally popular dish eaten on Dragon Boat Festival: Zongzi (粽子, zòngzi).
Zongzi are made of glutinous rice stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in a special leaf. They usually come in a triangular shape, though according to local customs and skills of the person making them, they can have different shapes. As so often, there is a marked Röstigraben between the North and the South: While Zongzi in the South are usually stuffed with a salty filling (usually meat), their Northern cousins tend to have a sweet filling such as red bean paste. If you haven’t tried Zongzi, visit your local Chinese supermarket around the time of the festival, or follow the video below and make your own.
Happy Dragon Boat Festival to everybody!