21 December 2009

The Seasons: Duanwu and the Dragon Boat Festival

By Jeannie Lin

The fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar is celebrated as both the Duanwu summer solstice festival, as well as the Dragon Boat festival. Also known as "double fifth," the celebration usually falls between late May and mid-June on the western Gregorian calendar.

Dragon boat racing originated in China over 2000 years ago and is most known for the colorful, canoe-like boats powered by 40 to 50 paddlers to the rhythmic beat of a drum. Today, dragon boat racing is regulated by the International Dragon Boat Federation and has become a popular competitive sport.

The summer Duanwu festival celebrates health and renewal. In Chinese mythology, the number five is a sacred number representing, of many things, the five elements: earth, fire, water, wood, and metal. On the summer solstice, people would throw food and offerings into the rivers to appease the dragon kings. They would also drink wine and hang herbs in their households to restore balance and case away sickness. Nowadays, people celebrate by eating triangular wrapped rice cakes called zongzi, drinking wine, and racing boats carved to resemble dragons.

This early practice was combined with the commemoration of the drowning of famous poet, Qu Yuan. In 277 BC, the poet wrote a lament about the fall of the imperial capital and then committed suicide by walking into the river. According to the legend, villagers raced out in boats to try to save him and threw rice and offerings into the river to ward the fish away from his body. Later versions of the legend embellished his death and claimed that he was consumed by a river dragon, merging it with the earlier folklore surrounding Duanwu.

In a final fascinating twist, the "double fifth" is also believed to be the day when all demons must reveal their true selves, making the Duanwu celebration a fascinating blend of Chinese numerology, folklore, and history.