Year 2 / Issue 17 / Dragon Boat Festival / Mei Shao

The Dragon Boat Festival
By: Mei Shao

If you have been to Toronto Central Island and watched the Dragon Boat Racing, you might be wondering what that is all about. Toronto Dragon Boat Racing was held every summer in July since 1988 in Toronto Central Island. This year it took place on July 25 and 26. What you would see there were dragon-shaped racing boats with a team of racers and a leader who guides the speed by controlling the rhythm of a drum. Sounds Chinese? Yes, the origin of this event does come from a traditional Chinese festival, the Dragon Boat Festival. The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month in Chinese lunar calendar, which usually falls in solar month of June. However, Toronto Dragon Boat Racing Festival has been always happening in the month of July when it can attract the most visitors.

The Dragon Boat Festival, also called the Duanwu Festival. For thousands of years, the festival has been marked by eating “Zong Zi” (Glutinous rice糯米) wrapped to form a pyramid using bamboo or reed leaves and racing dragon boats.

The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan's body. This is said to be the origin of Zong Zi. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.

The people of Chu who mourned the death of Qu threw rice into the river every year on the fifth day of the fifth month. But one year, the spirit of Qu appeared and told the mourners that a huge reptile in the river had stolen the rice. The spirit then advised them to wrap the rice in silk and bind it with five different-colored threads before tossing it into the river. I still remember wearing those five-colored threads around my wrists when I was a kid on Duanwu Festival. After the festival, we were supposed to throw these threads into a river and let it flow away with the water.

During the Duanwu Festival, a glutinous rice pudding called Zong Zi is eaten to symbolize the rice offerings to Qu. Ingredients such as beans, Lotus seeds (莲子), Chestnuts (栗子), pork fat and the golden yolk of a salted duck egg are often added to the glutinous rice. The pudding is then wrapped with bamboo leaves, bound with a kind of raffia and boiled in salt water for hours.

The dragon-boat races symbolize the many attempts to rescue and recover Qu's body. A typical dragon boat ranges from 50-100 feet in length, with a beam of about 5.5 feet, accommodating two paddlers seated side by side.

A wooden dragon head is attached at the bow, and a dragon tail at the stern. A banner hoisted on a pole is also fastened at the stern and the hull is decorated with red, green and blue scales edged in gold. In the center of the boat is a canopied shrine behind which the drummers, gong (铜锣) beaters and cymbal (铙钹) players are seated to set the pace for the paddlers. There are also men positioned at the bow to set off firecrackers, toss rice into the water and pretend to be looking for Qu. All of the noise and pageantry creates an atmosphere of gaiety and excitement for the participants and spectators alike. The races are held among different clans, villages and organizations, and the winners are awarded medals, banners, jugs of wine and festive meals.

The festival was long marked as a festival culturally in China. However, the People's Republic of China government, established in 1949, did not officially recognize traditional festivals, such as Duanwu, as public holidays. Beginning in 2005, the government began to plan for the re-recognition of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. In 2008, Duanwu was celebrated as not only a festival but also a public holiday in the People's Republic of China for the first time

Duanwu festive traditions are also observed by Chinese outside China. Around Duanwu Festival, you can find “Zong Zi” in all Chinese grocery stores in Toronto. Most Chinese here will just go and buy them from the store rather than making them at home since it takes lots of time and work to make. The Dragon Boat Racing in Central Island is more of a sport event now, not just for Chinese but for people from other cultures as well. You will still see the drum, the flag and the paddlers and you will still feel the excitement, but I doubt the paddlers would know the story behind this festival at all. Of course, you will not see the fireworks, nor the throwing of rice into the water.