Asia,  China,  Culture,  Customs,  International,  Taiwan,  Top Sights

Summer Dragon Boat Festival

Summer is ripe for activities and festivals all over the world, making it a prime season for jet setters to see customs across the globe. In Asia, summer sees the Dragon Boat Festival in addition to its yearly Ghost Festivals. Primarily celebrated in China and Taiwan, the purpose of the summer Dragon Boat Festival is to fend off illness and misfortune.

When is the Dragon Boat Festival?

Similar to Lunar New Year and the Ghost Festival, the summer Dragon Boat Festival also follows the lunar calendar instead of the Gregorian. As such, the dates change each year on the western calendar. The festival takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar, which places it at the end of May or the start (and sometimes middle) of June. This also corresponds with warm, sunny weather, ideal for boating.

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Origins

The main purpose of the summer Dragon Boat Festival generally comes from the ancient belief that the fifth month of the lunar year brings misfortune. This bad luck comes in the form of illness, disaster, malicious spirits, and poisonous creatures. From the fifth month’s fifth day onwards, people would start encountering 5 types of poisonous animals: snakes, centipedes, frogs, spiders, and scorpions. To ward off these creatures and other symptoms of illness and misfortune, the populace began spreading customs and large-scale ceremonies to promote health and good luck.

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann

The Tale of Qu Yuan

Although there are many speculations and stories relating to the origin of the dragon boats, the most popular origin story comes from the history of Qu Yuan (340-278 BC).

Qu Yuan was a war minister and poet that served the royal family of Chu during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). As punishment for disagreeing with the emperor’s decision to ally with a rival state (the Qin), Qu Yuan was sent into exile. When he learned that the Qin invaded the Chu capital, an agonized Qu Yuan took his own life by jumping into the Miluo River.

On boats, Qu Yuan’s supporters (mostly commoners) rushed to save his body from the river. Unable to find the corpse, they threw sticky rice into the water, hoping the fish would eat the rice instead of Qu Yuan’s body. Ever since, the people have held dragon boat races to honor Qu Yuan’s memory. The role of glutenous rice balls also became the origin of the zongzi dish and its importance to the holiday.

Zongzi; photo by Mae Mu

Over time, the tale of Qu Yuan conflated with the fifth month’s ancient traditions, becoming the summer Dragon Boat Festival we know today.

Customs and Celebrations – Summer Dragon Boat Festival

As one of the biggest holidays in the Chinese community, the Dragon Boat Festival has a variety of traditions and celebrations that anyone can see.

Dragon Boat Racing

Modern day dragon boat crew; photo by cheng feng

Dragon boats were typically made of wood, though today they are made of a variety of materials. Decorated with ornamental dragon heads and colorful patterns, the boats measure 12 meters long (48 feet; 30 feet for “smaller” boats). A dragon boat crew usually has 22 members (10 for smaller ones), with 20 paddlers, 1 member in charge of steering, and 1 drummer.

Dragon boat races occur yearly during the festival, with many small and large-scale races taking place across Asia.

Dragon Boat race in Hong Kong; photo by Joshua J. Cotten

For instance, race enthusiasts can see competitions at Dajia Riverside Park near the Keelung River, which regularly hosts the International Dragon Boat Championship. Visitors can also stop by historic Lukang for one of the island’s biggest Dragon Boat Festival celebration, with plenty of races, contests, street foods, traditional displays, and more.

Many tours to Lukang include a visit to the iconic Sun Moon Lake (roughly 2 miles away by car); photo by Winston Chen

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Dragon Boat Taboos

There are some key taboos and traditions associated with the dragon boat races, but only one is still alive today.

In the past, only men could race. Women could only paddle the dragon boat’s female equivalent, the phoenix boat. The belief was that menstrual cycles made women unclean, which barred them from touching the dragon boats, symbols of the godly protection. Fortunately, this belief is a thing of the past! Today, anyone can paddle a boat so long as they are able.

Men with pregnant wives were also advised to not touch the boats, for fear that the dragon’s intense energy would hurt the fetus. The same applied for people with recently deceased family members.

Dragon boat paddlers and passengers were required to board barefoot because the people considered shoes unclean, and therefore disrespectful to the dragon spirit.

Photo by Lucía Hernández

The aforementioned restrictions have all faded in the present day, but there is one that still exists: the Dragon drinking ceremony. This dictates that a new dragon boat cannot float out until a shaman paints the dragon’s eyes with chicken blood and the boat drums start beating. In the past, priests carried out this tradition, but now, it is common to see government officials paint the eyes instead (often with literal red paint instead of chicken blood). The dragon boat is not alive until the eyes light up (are painted).

Egg Balancing

Another common “sport” to do during the summer Dragon Boat Festival is balancing eggs. You will likely see this more often in Taiwan during the festival (in China, egg-balancing occurs more often during the Lunar New Year). Unlike dragon boat racing, you do not need to be a professional to take part in the activity, though a good sense of balance helps!

Photo by Laura Goodsell

There is no particular origin story for this custom, but it is said to help with maintaining a peaceful mind.

Egg balancing is exactly as the name implies. To balance an egg, all you need to do is stand the egg on its end so it doesn’t fall on its side. Of course, that is easier said than done. As such, Taiwan hosts a number of egg balancing contests during the Dragon Boat Festival, usually held by temples or department stores.

Legend has it that the eggs have a better chance of standing up at noon, so that is the hour when these contests usually take place. Another common belief is that whoever manages to balance their egg at noon will be lucky for the rest of the year.

Zongzi

While common even on a regular day, zongzi are especially important during the Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi are triangular rice dumplings wrapped in leaves of bamboo and reed, and then steamed. The taste and scent of the dish result from the aroma of the leaves and the fillings within glutinous rice. Zongzi come in many variations, including sweet (usually filled with red beans), savory (filled with salted egg and meat, usually pork), and vegetarian.

Zongzi, sold in groups at the market

Although anyone can make, buy, or eat zongzi during any other part of the year, it is customary to eat zongzi at least once during the Dragon Boat Festival. This is both in honor of the Qu Yuan tale, and as a tribute to one’s own ancestors.

5 Bean Congee

Another food to try during the Dragon Boat Festival is Five-Bean Congee, more commonly found in Hong Kong and Guandong areas during the holiday. Consistent with the holiday’s rule of 5, this sweet dish consists of five types of beans (mung beans, red beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans).

Photo by Monkgogi Samson

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5-Colored Threads

The emphasis on 5 items also extends beyond food. Going back to the holiday’s origin as a defense against illness, the 5-colored thread tradition repels disease and malicious spirits for the year. (Although this tradition is more common in parts of mainland China, it is something that my family practices in Taiwan as well, passed down by my grandmother.)

Photo by John Anvik

Adults take (traditionally, but not necessarily) silk threads from 5 different colors and combine them into single braids. They tie these 5-colored braids around the wrists, ankles, and middle fingers of their children. The children must keep the threads on, even after the festival passes, and can only take them off the next time it rains (if the threads do not slip off first). When it rains, the parents take the threads and throw them away near gutters, and let the rain wash the threads down.

This custom usually just applies for children, but there is no age limit to the participants. For example, an entire family, parents included, can take part.

Variations of the Summer Dragon Boat Festival

Although biggest in China and Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia also observe the Dragon Boat Festival. Similar festivals that take place on the 5th day of the 5th month are the Korean Dano Festival, the Japanese Children’s Day, and the Vietnamese Tết Đoan Ngọ. On the 4th day of the 5th lunar month, Japan also celebrates its Yuuka Nu Hii Festival, which focuses on dragon boat racing. Marking the summer solstice, each holiday celebrates spiritual and physical health, with its own unique traditions.

SEE ALSO: Jenny in Wanderland blog post, How to Travel in Taiwan for an in depth look at getting around.


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