When I first signed my contract I was intrigued by this part. “The party employed is entitled to the following holidays and festivals in China: New Years Day, Spring Festival, Tomb-Sweeping Day, May Day, National Day and Dragon Boat Day.”
Well, I’ve lived through all of them except one, the coolest sounding one: Dragon Boat Day. And that day is now upon us. I’ve been waiting almost a year to find out what Dragon Boat Day is all about.
Dragon Boat Day is an ancient holiday, and like all good ancient holidays there are many different stories on why we celebrate it. What everyone agrees on is the day. Every year Dragon Boat Day falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar. Supposedly it’s very unlucky day. If a child is born on this day they are thought to bring bad luck to their parents. (In ancient times children born on this day were killed!) So, in an attempt to dispel some of the bad luck they hold a festival.
The main hero of the day is a man named Qu Yuan. He was an advisor to an emperor in the time when China was made up of smaller individual kingdoms. He was a poet and a scholar and spoke out strongly against corruption. He was well-known, and well respected by the common people, but many in the court were angry at him for his anti-corruption stance and pressured the emperor to remove him from court. Eventually the emperor gave in an Qu Yuan was exiled.
Wandering in exile Qu Yuan became a teacher and spent much of his time writing poetry (which is still widely read today). One day he heard that his emperor, and his nation, was overtaken by the powerful Qin nation. (The Qin emperor was the one that conquered all nations and united China. You know the guy from the movie Hero.) Upset, Qu Yuan grabbed a rock and threw himself into a river in despair.
The local people, who loved Qu Yuan, were worried that the fish were eating the body of the scholar (and for some reason thought that was a bad thing) so they started throwing packed sticky rice into the river in an attempt to keep the fish so full they couldn’t eat the body. Today eating packed rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, called zongzi, is also a tradition. The rice often has vegetables or meat in the center and is shaped like a triangle.
In fact, the most famous place for zongzi in China is actually right near where I live in a town called Jiaxing. I think I’ve even ate a zongzi from Jiaxing on my first day. On the drive from Shanghai to Lin’an the driver and student helper pulled over in a rest stop and said we had to get some of the famous food. To be honest I was so jetlagged, nervous and overwhelmed at everything I barely remember it, but I do remember it was zongzi and he said the town was famous for it.
Other traditions include wearing a little silk pouch filled with herbs for protection. In ancient times the fifth lunar month was called the poison month because of all the bugs and insects that were attracted by the newly growing crops. Many farmers hung special herbs around their windows and on themselves to repel biting insects which could cause disease. This tradition is alive and well and I’ve personally bought a few pouches (one shaped like a lion, the other with an embroidered dragon on it) to wear. Hey, you can never have too much luck.
Of course you can’t have Dragon Boat Day without some dragon boats although, oddly, this seems like the part of the festival least talked about. I live near Hangzhou, a hugely popular city with the famous West Lake and yet finding out where a dragon boat race was going to be held was a little difficult. Dragon boats are similar to crewing type boats, long thin boats with rowers on either side, with one obvious difference. Instead of a sleek design they are decorated and kitted out to look like colorful dragons. Dragon boat racing isn’t just big in China but seems to have leagues and teams all over the world!
One last interesting note is that while Dragon Boat Day is an ancient tradition it is a rather young holiday. In fact, it wasn’t designated as an official holiday until 2005 when the government decided to re-establish some traditional days that were pushed out in the 40’s and 50’s. The countries school kids have the day off from school (which is a bit annoying especially as we only have 5 days left to the semester) and banks and official government offices are closed.
So I’m happy to finally figure out what this crazy named holiday is all about. One of the joys about living in a different country is learning about, and celebrating the different holidays. Sure, maybe I won’t get any apple pie or BBQ on July 4th, but instead I get to watch dragon boats race and wear special herbs on June 16. And you know what? I’m okay with that!
Three Photo Credits