Dragon Boat Festival: Origins & Traditions
Known as Duanwu Jie (which roughly translates to “start of the fifth solar month festival”) in Mandarin, the dragon boat festival is a public holiday in China associated with dragon boat races and bamboo leaf wrapped rice dumplings.
There are numerous stories as to how the Dragon Boat Festival originated, among which the commemoration of the death of the famous scholar Qu Yuan (340–278 BC, Chu Kingdom in ancient China) is one of the most widely circulated.
During his exile, when Qu Yuan was accused of false conspiracy charges, he wrote a large number of poems to express his anger and sorrow towards the emperor and his people. At the age of 61, Qu Yuan committed suicide in great despair by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.
Locals who admired Qu Yuan believed he was an honorable man, and rowed out in their boats to try to save him. They searched desperately for Qu Yuan but were unable to save him. Hence, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated every year to commemorate this attempt at rescuing Qu Yuan.
The Chu fishermen tried to preserve his body by paddling their boats up and down the river, hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare evil spirits away. They also began the tradition of throwing lumps of sacrificial cooked rice into the river for Qu Yuan, because they believed that the rice would keep the fish full and prevent the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. At the start, the locals decided to make zongzi in hopes that it would sink into the river and reach Qu Yuan's body. The tradition of wrapping cooked rice in bamboo leaves to make zongzi didn’t begin until the following year.
How It’s Celebrated Today
Since the Dragon Boat Festival follows the Lunar calendar, there is not a set date to when its held on the Gregorian calendar. According to the Lunar calendar, it takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month. So this year, the Dragon Boat Festival occurs on Jun 3, 2022.
Many celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival by eating sticky rice dumplings (zongzi 粽子), drinking realgar wine (xiong huang jiu 雄黃酒), and race dragon boats. Dragon boat races are held yearly on the day of his death according to the legend. There are other less known activities that include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, writing spells and wearing perfumed medicine bags. All of these activities were thought of by the ancients as an effective way of preventing disease, evil, while promoting good health and well-being.
Although the holiday originated in China, other Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, also celebrate the festival with various activities and customs influenced by Chinese traditions. In the Western world, it is introduced by Chinese immigrants and mainly celebrated with dragon boat races, which is gaining more popularity nowadays.
South Korea’s Dano Festival (originally called Surit-nal) is derived from the Chinese Duanwu Jie. It was adopted during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) in ancient Korea. It runs for more than 20 days and culminates on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar, the day when the Dano falls.The festival involves colorful celebration activities including the Gangneung Danoje Festival, which is the biggest and best-known event for Dano Festivals.
In Japan, this day is celebrated as Children’s Day. It was introduced to Japan after the Heian period (794–1185) and originally called Tango no Sekku. The festival fell on the fifth day of the fifth moon in the Lunar calendar, but then was switched to the Gregorian calendar and moved to May 5. As the word "calamus" and the phrase meaning "advocate strength" are homophones in the Japanese language, the festival was widely regarded as a festival for boys and celebrated as Boy's Day and wasn’t known as Children's Day until it was renamed in 1948. Like the Chinese, the Japanese eat special food on this day that resembles zongzi and drink calamus wine to fend off evil spirits. Kashiwa-mochi, sticky rice cakes filled with red bean jam and wrapped in oak leaves, and chimaki, sticky sweet rice wrapped in an iris or bamboo leaf, are popular traditional foods served during the festival. Wishing that children grow in strength and health, on Children’s Day, activities done on this day include raising the koinobori, which are carp-shaped windsocks that blow like banners in the wind and symbolizes hope.
What is Zong Zi 粽子?
Now you know why zongzi is conventionally consumed to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, but zongzi is also consumed as a meal or snack any time of the year. Let’s dive further into what exactly is zongzi.
Zongzi, also simply called Zong in Cantonese, is made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and usually wrapped in bamboo leaves. Other times, it may also be wrapped with reed or other large flat leaves. There are so many fillings one can include in this sticky rice treat, but some popular fillings for the savory zongzi are various combinations of salty duck egg yolks, tender pork belly, peanuts, Chinese sausage, and shiitake mushroom. The all inclusive Southern-style (Cantonese) zongzi uses salted duck egg, pork belly, spam, taro, shredded pork or chicken, Chinese sausage, pork fat, and shiitake mushrooms as the filling. You can even make vegetarian versions of zongzi by excluding the meat fillings.
They can also be enjoyed as a dessert, as the Northern version includes adzuki beans (or red beans). It is eaten with honey or dipped in sugar. This type of zongzi is called lye water zong (碱水粽) or alkaline rice dumpling.
Zongzi are cooked by steaming (preferred) or boiling it in water. If using the boiling method, boil it in water for at least 15 minutes if they are thawed or refrigerated, and for 30 minutes if they are frozen. You can also heat it up in the microwave (after the zongzi is thawed) for about 2-3 minutes.
Sweet zongzi can be enjoyed at room temperature, but savory zongzi are really the best when they're steamy and delicious. To eat, simply cut the twine and unwrap the leaves to reveal the zongzi inside. Then dig in!