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The Dragon Boat Festival

Summer is almost here, and around the world, people are getting ready to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. Children are preparing costumes and painting the dragon boats in places such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Francisco and Boston. The Dragon Boat Festival occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar, or June 15th this year. This "double fifth" day marks the summer solstice, and is the second of the three Chinese festivals of the living.

This festival dates back at least 2000 years. It is rooted in fertility rites which were performed to ensure abundant rainfall in China. Rice, as the staple food, provides the main source of sustenance for Chinese people. Rain is essential for an abundant harvest, so the Chinese people honored the Dragon god, who was responsible for rainfall and rivers. Later, these fertility rites changed into a festival to honor the famous Chinese poet, Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan lived in the third century, and was a beloved poet. Many Chinese kingdoms were under attack at this time. The kingdom of Ch'u, was about to be attacked, and the king asked for Qu Yuan's advice. However, the king did not like his advice and sent Qu Yuan into exile. When Qu Yuan finally returned, he found that the kingdom had been captured. He was so heartbroken at this news, he composed one of China's most famous elegies, "Li Sao", or "Lament on Encountering Sorrow". In despair, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river. The people loved him so much that they honored him every year by searching for his soul on the river, in the dragon boats. They also prepared special rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, called Zhongzi, and threw them into the river as offerings to his soul.

As the festival developed, it became more elaborate and fun. It is now celebrated with river parades, dragon boat races, rice offerings of Zhongzi, martial arts demonstrations, street theater and firecrackers into the night. The boats are brightly colored and decorated to resemble dragons, with a head at the bow and a tail at the stern. They are wooden, canoe-shaped and are generally 40 to 100 feet in length, holding 20-80 rowers. In northern China, boats are painted to represent the five elements; blue for wood, red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal, and black for water. The colors and elements correlate to the cyclical nature of life itself: wood prevails over earth, metal prevails over wood, fire over metal, water over fire and earth over wood. The boat races used to be so dangerous and competitive that they were forbidden in the early 1900s, because of the deaths that would occur each year. Now, however, there is friendly competition between the teams of boaters.

The favorite decorations of this festival are the Five Poison Charms. According to Chinese custom, the "double fifth" is the hottest day of the month, when all the poisonous vapors are in the air, so every attempt is made to harmonize yin and yang so that danger and disease can be avoided. The Five Poison Charm is made up of a snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard, toad and sometimes spider. It was thought that the strength of the 4 poisons would counteract the poison of one. It is embroidered on clothing, stamped on cakes, engraved on charms, and used for decorations.

Zhongzi, a rice dumpling, is a special dish prepared for this festival. It is a serving of rice wrapped in leaves and tied together with string. The way the string is wound and knotted tells what ingredients are inside. The dumpling can be filled with all sorts of different things, from pickle eggs, beans, dates, fruits, yams, pudding, walnuts, melon seeds. There are many different ways to make zhongzi. Bamboo leaf zhongzi is a specialty in South China, while Beijiing style is the sweetest tasting, with a filling of coarse bean paste. In Taiwan, the favorite way to make zhongzi is to put dried peanut flakes on top of the rice.

To learn more about the Dragon Boat Festival, check out these titles:

  • Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts
  • Red Eggs and Dragon Boats
  • Gongs and Drums of Celebration CD
  • Gongs and Drums of Celebration Tape
  • Dragon Boat: Pipa Music CD
  • Dragon Boat: Pipa Music Tape
  • Festivals of the World:China
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