The Dragon Boat Festival is a national holiday in China that takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Usually near the beginning of summer. The holiday is famous for the dragon boat races, where people race cool-looking boats carved into the shape of dragons. I’ve lived in China for almost three years and have yet to see a single dragon boat.
The Origins of the Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival has a tragic origin story. Many centuries ago, the famous poet Qu Yuan was exiled during the Warring States Period. It’s said his patriotic poems led to his exile. He was so upset he walked into the Miluo River and drowned himself.
The local people rowed out on boats to try to recover his body, but with no luck. When they realized they were too late, they threw sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves to try and distract the evil spirits (and hungry fish) from devouring his body.
The race to rescue Qu’s body since turned into the famous dragon boat races. The rice dumplings became the zongzi which you’ll find everywhere in China during the week leading up to the holiday.
Similar to Qingming, it’s not necessarily the happiest of festivals. I was told by my Chinese teacher that it isn’t really appropriate to wish people a “happy Dragon Boat Festival.” (I’m sorry, but I’ve already forgotten what she told me to say instead.)
Food and Other Traditions
As I mentioned above, the bamboo leaf wrapped rice dumplings known as zongzi (粽子) are super popular around this time of year. You can buy them anywhere that sells items remotely resembling food. Some restaurants even give them out for free.
They supposedly date back to Qu Yuan’s tragic death, but some historians think the zongzi are even older. They think they might have been a kind of fast food for farmers; a quick, easily preserved, meal that’s convenient to carry out to the fields.
Zongzi are mostly sticky rice, with various kinds of fillings. The filling ranges from pork and eggs to sweet dates. In Shanghai, I’ve mostly had the red bean-filled kind. To be completely honest with you, I find them to be pretty bland and not very good. I also still haven’t figured out how to eat them without getting my hands covered in glutinous sticky rice residue.
Aside from the food, people will also use the day to clean their houses. They hang Chinese mugwort leaves from their doors. You’ll see tons of people walking home carrying huge stalks of leaves, sometimes as tall as they are. The mugwort is a fragrant plant that supposedly drives away evil spirits and diseases. More practically, it helps keep mosquitos away, which is very important during the wet, humid summers. Seriously, there are so many mosquitos during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Speaking of warding off evil, people also make perfume pouches to put around their children’s necks. I had one student come to class with a perfume pouch dangling from her neck. The pouches are just cloth bags filled with herbs, and they’re really quite pungent. Her classmates were all whining about the smell, and I felt a little bad for her.
Where to See the Dragon Boat Races?
As I said before, I have yet to see one of the famous dragon boat races. A friend who grew up in San Francisco said the races were super popular amongst Chinese-Americans. According to her, the kids who participated in the dragon boat races were all pompous jocks who would bring their oars to class and thought they were so damn cool.
We tried to track down a dragon boat race our first year in Shanghai. None of our Chinese coworkers had any idea where the races were. A rumor from some fellow expats said there might be races on Suzhou Creek. We were excited to finally have a lead after weeks of shrugs and ‘I don’t knows.’ So, we made our way out to Suzhou Creek, and wandered quite a ways along the riverside, only to be sorely disappointed. We found nothing but a crowd of confused white people.
I haven’t had any luck since. I asked my boss this year and she just laughed. She said “I’m from China and I’ve never even seen a dragon boat race.”
Apparently, the dragon boat races are more of a Southern thing. Y’all might be able to see them if you’re in Hong Kong or Guangdong, but tough luck if you’re further North.
I guess it makes sense, since a lot of (most?) Chinese Americans can trace their heritage back to Guangdong or other parts of Southern China. It’s also kind of interesting that many of the things that Americans associate with China (food, Cantonese dialect, dragon boat racing) are actually just Southern Chinese things, and pretty rare in the rest of the country.
Still, I’m a little disappointed to have never seen a dragon boat race. Like many other holidays, it seems that people in Shanghai mostly celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival with a big family meal and a day off work. I’m stuck here still trying to get sticky rice residue off of my fingers.