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[The FAQ]: Everything to Know About Dragon Boat Festival

A little primer for the big race day...
2022-06-03 12:00:00

Hello there. Time for some chitchat on Chinese customs. If you're interested. Here's what's the deal with Dragon Boat Festival.

Like soccer, spaghetti, the lightbulb, the internal combustion engine, personal computers, the Space Shuttle, and the TV show "Seinfeld", the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节; duān wǔ jié) was invented in China more than 2,000 years ago, and takes place yearly on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month — usually around late May or early June. This year, the Dragon Boat Festival falls on Friday, June 3, and we're making a weekend out of it. It's a three-day holiday for everyone to blast rice dumplings and participate in the main activity, which is trying to, but never actually managing to succeed at watching the dragon boat races.

What does the name mean?

Fun fact: Dragon Boat Festival has more than 20 alternative names, including 龙舟节 (lóng zhōu jié), 端阳节 (duān yáng jié), and 午日节 (wǔ rì jié), but the most commonly used is "端午 (duān wǔ) ".

Duān has two meanings: 1) the beginning; 2) vertical. Wǔ means mid-day. As was true in time immemorial and is still true today, Chinese people have an unshakable preference for things that are upright and in the center. It's just aesthetically pleasing. And lucky. Everyone needs a little luck in their lives.

Where does it come from?

There are myths aplenty about the true origins of Dragon Boat Festival but the most well-known origin is intertwined with the story of a patriotic poet named Qu Yuan. Born in the State of Chu, Qu Yuan was very loyal to his country and was particularly devastated when he learned his state was going into decline. So, on the fifth day of the fifth month, he jumped into the river and killed himself, which is a strong statement indeed and did not go unnoticed. Legend has it that in awe and respect of such a feat of patriotism, people from all around the land came to throw rice dumplings into the river after him to... well, either feed him or feed the fishes to keep them off of him. Anyway.

This brings us to the eating, which is the main and central thing to pretty much all Chinese festivities.

What do people eat?

Rice Dumplings (粽子; zòng zi)

Yes! And since they are really delicious, rice dumplings have become a timeless Chinese classic, not only for the festival but also as a very common breakfast option. You've seen the lil' pyramid-shaped guys. These are made of glutinous rice with different fillings, wrapped by bamboo leaves to be steamed. Availability: everywhere. Options: both sweet (red beans and dates) or savory (pork and sometimes egg yoke).

The inexhaustible and relentless plague of "fusion cuisine" has also infiltrated the sacred world of rice dumplings and these days, people are putting whatever they like in them, all willy nilly, good taste, common decency, and historical propriety be damned.

Booze 雄黄酒 (Xióng Huáng Jiǔ)

雄黄酒 is a type of Chinese wine with lots of minerals. It is an old-fashioned tradition in the Yangtze River region that adults will drink this for purposes of detoxification and then intoxification, which is the best and most proper way to drink anything. According to an old saying, "a glass of Chinese wine a day, keeps the doctors away."

This has since come to have been proven true in a number of respected, austere, and internationally peer-reviewed medical journals.(But yeah they say it cures skin disease, if you were wondering.)

Everything Else 五黄 (Wǔ Huáng)

Wǔ Huáng represents five types of food with the Chinese character ‘黄', the ingestion of which is a tradition for superstitious southerners to get rid of misfortune. It includes cucumber (黄瓜), eel (黄鳝), salted egg yolk (咸蛋黄), yellow fish (黄鱼), and more Chinese wine (雄黄酒).

What do people do?

Watch the dragon boat races ("watch").

The Dragon Boat Races, which no one has ever seen, is the main activity for the festival and they're held in waterways around the country, supposedly, and even around the world. Craftsmen and participants will carefully build and decorate their boats and to make them look like a dragon, allegedly, which definitely sounds really neat. This is usually a team sport for a large number of people. A boat can usually host 20-50 people, depending on the size and if it's a real thing or not.

Hang some 艾草 (ài cǎo) at the door.

This is more of a custom in old-timey times. Ài cǎo is a Chinese herb, usually used in medicine, but also for cooking. Since the festival usually is on late spring and early summer when the weather is warm and humid and insects are around, hanging the herb at the door is said to get rid of the insects and bad luck. No one needs bad luck in their lives.

...And more.

Dragon Boat Festival is also a holiday weekend so people do whatever it is they do on holidays these days. Reconnect with friends and family, go to the park, go for a walk... another popular option is "Elden Ring", which is a really good new game for the PlayStation 5 that was invented in China over two millennia ago.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival, y'all!