Dragon boat racing in Australia

The Dragon Boat Festival: Eat, Don't Drink, But Be Merry

What holiday involves dragon-like boats, sticky rice pyramids, and toxic wine? If you guessed the Dragon Boat Festival, you’d be right. But do you know where those traditions came from? Let’s take a look.

A patriot poet

There's a reason the holiday takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (which translates to June 22 this year). And that reason has to do with Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who lived 340278 BC.

Parade float of poet Qu Yuan

The poet Qu Yuan riding in style.

Qu was a loyal official and adviser of the state of Chu during the Warring States period, during which seven states fought for control over China. While he was passionately dedicated to helping the king, he was eventually exiled by said king when jealous officials slandered him and accused of him treason. It was during this exile that Qu wrote his many patriotic poems.

When the Qin state conquered the capital of Chu, Qu was so devastated, he drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Legend says the townspeople rowed their boats up and down the river, looking for his body. When they couldn’t find it, they tossed in lumps of rice to keep hungry fish away. An old doctor also poured in realgar wine — once considered a universal antidote against poison — to ward off evil spirits.

A dragon king

Another theory says the holiday has to do with worshiping the Dragon King (hence, dragon boats), who ruled over water and weather, dispensed rain, and embodied yang, the masculine side of yin and yang.

Modern traditions

Nowadays, celebrants honor the legend of Qu Yun or Dragon King in a variety of ways. You can too.

Race some dragon boats or just watch

Rowers might think they’re simply trying to win a race. Little may they know they’re reenacting the search for a drowned poet. Many cities and towns all over the world hold races. In our neck of the woods the annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival takes place August 12 and 13. Mark your calendars, New Yorkers! 

Eat zongzi

Zongsi hanging for sale

Zongzi for sale.

Don’t toss lumps of rice into a river. Eat them instead. These pyramid-shaped sticky rice treats are cooked in bamboo leaves and can be sweet (e.g., red bean paste) or savory (e.g., pork belly and peanuts). Other fillings include mung bean, salted eggs, mushrooms, and dates. 

Don’t drink realgar wine

Any alcoholic beverage that’s also an insecticide can’t be good news. Realgar, in case you were wondering, is an arsenic sulfide mineral. That’s right: arsenic, which makes it a toxic arsenic compound, and a no no to drink, at least in our book.

Want to get even more in the Dragon Boat Festival spirit? Check out these fun dragon decorations.

[Photos: "Dragon Boat Races" by Marc Dalmulder, CC BY 2.0; "A statue of Qu Yuan in a dragon boat on one of Singapore's central streets. A display for the Dragon Boat Festival" by Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0; "Zongzi, Singapore" by Mr Bao, CC BY 2.0]

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