June 23, 2023
BEIJING – Dragon Boat Festival turns clock back to showcase China’s rich history
Duanwu, also known as Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on Thursday this year, is an annual occasion for Chinese to have family reunions, watch dragon boat races, and eat zongzi — glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves.
In some regions, on the morning of the festival, parents tie string bands in five colors around their children’s wrists, ankles or necks. When the first rain comes after the festival, they cut the bands off and throw them into the water to drive away evil spirits.
Xu Ning, 48, executive chef at Nanjing Great Hotel in Beijing, said: “The older generation likes to go to the food market to buy reed leaves and soak them in water for a night to make zongzi. As many people want a healthy diet, restaurants make different fillings for the dumplings.”
In 2009, Dragon Boat Festival was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the first Chinese festival to receive this honor. The festival is believed to commemorate Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet from the Chu state during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
Legend has it that as the Chu state faced imminent conquest by its adversaries, Qu took his own life by plunging into the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which now marks the festival.
Qu came from Zigui county, Yichang city, Hubei province, where local people celebrate with their own customs on the fifth, 15th and 25th days of the fifth lunar month.
Zheng Chengzhi has hosted the county’s annual grand sacrificial ceremony for Qu since 2006, when his father, the previous host, died.
He can’t help shedding tears each time he reads the oration aloud. The emotions he feels go beyond a sense of responsibility to pass on heritage. The entire county celebrates Qu as the god of water, seeing him as a protective figure. More than that, the poet has become a father figure for Zheng.
“Qu’s patriotism, people-oriented thought, honesty and inquiring mind are precious and worth learning about,” said Zheng, the provincial inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of “Qu Yuan’s legends”.
After his address, as the dragon boat paddlers skillfully navigate the waters, a female performer dressed as Qu’s younger sister sings an emotional song to call back his spirit.
A poetry contest in Zigui, which has been staged for centuries, was once attended mainly by local farmers, who wrote poems about Qu and read them aloud to share with others. Zheng said it now attracts more contestants and the themes of their poems are not only about Qu but also modern lives.
The 2023 International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Cup is also being staged in Zigui on the Yangtze River. The event began on Tuesday and is scheduled to end on Friday.
Zheng said large-scale dragon boat races are often held in Zigui. Local residents are fond of the sport, but paddlers should be aware of dangerous rapids on the river.
In Wangusi village, Zigui, more than 1,300 residents share the surname Qu. They proudly identify themselves as descendants of Qu Yuan through ancestral written genealogical records that trace their lineage for generations.
Qu Jiaming, the village’s Party secretary, who identifies himself as the 68th-generation grandson of Qu Yuan, said: “The festival holds greater significance for us than Spring Festival, as it attracts visitors who come to learn about our traditions, including those who share the surname Qu. The culture related to Qu Yuan and the festival has boosted rural vitalization in the village.”
Visitors, including students who arrive for study tours, immerse themselves in the village’s culture by engaging in activities such as picking local navel oranges and paddling dragon boats.
“It’s our responsibility to promote Qu Yuan’s spirit, and I try my best to integrate it into village management practices,” Qu Jiaming said.
Dragon boat racing has emerged as a cherished tradition and popular sport in China and other countries.
As testament to its global appeal, a dragon boat race was staged as a demonstration sport before the start of the final canoe race at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which due to the COVID-19 pandemic were held in 2021.
To celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, civil and government organizations hold races for participants from all walks of life. It is also tradition for those who live in neighboring villages to compete against each other in these races.
To prepare for the races this year, students at Jimei University in Xiamen, Fujian province, have practiced hard every day.
Despite having university courses in the mornings, they devoted their afternoons to paddling dragon boats under a fierce sun. They also took part in strength training in the evenings.
Lin Zhibin, 22, a junior student and captain of one of the university’s dragon boat teams, said: “The sport emphasizes the power of teamwork and unity. You have to bring all your energy to the race. Training can be demanding due to the sweltering heat, but those who truly love dragon boat racing never complain.”
He has formed a deep connection with the festival through the enjoyment he gets from the races.
“We have to overcome countless obstacles to achieve victory. In the blink of an eye, the outcome of a race can shift, making teamwork more important than individual ability,” Lin said.
The university has formed three male teams and one female team comprising a total of about 100 members. For this year’s festival, the teams have been invited to four venues across the country.
Zhang Yi, 41, a senior coach from the university, said that as China has optimized its COVID-19 strategy, more races are being staged this year, reflecting increasing demand for the sport nationwide.
“Central and local government authorities attach great importance to dragon boat races,” Zhang said.
Due to his busy race schedule every year, he rarely finds time to fully immerse himself in some of the traditional festivities. However, he cherishes the opportunity to share his childhood memories of the festival with student paddlers, who are keen to exchange their own stories.
“We come from different parts of the country, so we get to learn about the commonalities and differences in how the festival is celebrated in southern and northern China,” Zhang said.
For example, during the festival in provinces such as Fujian, Sichuan and Hunan, people take part in a duck grabbing activity, which is often held near the dragon boat races. Participants dash across a narrow piece of lumber coated with oil in an attempt to touch a long stick, before plunging into a pool. The person who successfully grabs a duck in the pool is awarded it as a trophy.
Watching traditional festival galas on television with their families is a long-held tradition among Chinese.
One notable choice is Adventures of Dragon Boat Festival. The TV show is part of Chinese Festivals, an annual series produced by Henan Broadcasting System that is particularly popular with young people.
This year, it presents the show from the perspective of young people to highlight their understanding of traditional Chinese culture and patriotism.
Qian Linlin, the show’s joint chief director, said: “Dragon boat racing symbolizes Chinese people’s indomitable spirit. We want to inspire young Chinese to embrace this fearless spirit, especially when confronted with difficulties.
“As it’s currently the college graduation season, we also aim to impart a positive outlook on life to young people who are about to embark on their journey into society.”
Su Wei, also joint chief director for the show, said it is important to present traditional content in a modern and captivating way that appeals to a young audience.
He added that the key to connecting with young people is to empathize with them, and not preach to them.
“As we delve deeper into these traditional festivals, we uncover a treasure trove of culture that allows us to enrich our TV program and explore endless possibilities,” he said.