Beating drums urge the rowers on as a multi-colored crowd cheers from the shore. The oarsmen stare straight ahead, sitting within boats with glowing eyes, willing themselves to win and therefore bring luck and good fortune to the cities they represent. Zongzi, or pyramid shaped sticky rice dumplings, are tossed into the water as the Dragon Boats fly to the finish line continuing an almost 2,000 year old tradition.
June 20 marks this year’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Double Fifth Festival and the Duanwu Festival. The festival is always held on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar and through its many different practices, symbolizes protection from evil and disease for the rest of the year.
Although the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival are unclear, two theories are most often told. The first and most widely believed is the story of famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who after opposing a government alliance decided it would be better to commit suicide by drowning in the river than live under a new Qin state. The locals raced out in their boats to save him and threw zongzi and realgar wine into the river to distract the fish from eating his body but unfortunately never found him. The second theory is that the festival originated from the ancient worship of dragons.
In addition to boat races, healthy herbs like mugwort and calamus are hung around homes along with pictures of Zhong Kui, a mythical guardian, to protect homes from bugs and evil spirits. Realgar wine and assorted zongzi are enjoyed in any town celebrating the festival and children are often equipped with satchels full of aromatic herbs and a bracelet or necklace made of multicolored silk threads. Another popular game during the festival is standing an egg on its end at exactly 12 noon; if one manages to do this, the next year will be especially lucky. All of these traditions are meant to ward off evil and disease and act as a sort of spring-cleaning for the coming of summer.
Keep rhythm with the dragons and experience the beat behind Chinese culture this summer by attending one of the many Dragon Boat Festivals held in China, such as the ones in Hangzhou or Hong Kong.