If you passed by the Tamsui River this week, you may have seen – or heard – dozens of dragon boats speeding through the water. The crews of these boats, which are so named because of their dragon-like appearance, have been practicing for the Dragon Boat Festival, an annual holiday that honors Qu Yuan, an exiled minister and poet from the Warring States Period. The holiday falls on June 9 this year.
While there are various interpretations of Qu Yuan’s story, a popular telling is as follows: Born around 344 BC, he was a powerful and patriotic minister from the state of Chu. He was later exiled – some say because he opposed the king’s alliance with the Qin state, while others say that his reputation was tarnished by jealous court officials.
Living in exile, Qu Yuan wrote beautiful poems describing his admiration for his country. Nearly 30 years later, his state was captured by Qin. Unable to bear this sorrow, Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River, illustrating his ultimate loyalty to his state.
The people of Chu rushed to the river on dragon boats to look for his body. Women threw zongzi, rice wrapped inside bamboo leaves, into the river, hoping the fish would eat that instead of his body. Men beat drums on their boats to scare the fish – and evil spirits – away, and a doctor emptied realgar wine (雄黃酒) into the river to repel monsters.
Two centuries later, the Dragon Boat Festival, known in Chinese as Duanwujie, is a lively holiday celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunisolar calendar – the day Qu Yuan threw himself into the river. This also happens to be around the time of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. As the sun is associated with masculine energy, this holiday represents the peak of masculine energy. Dragons are similarly symbolic.
There are many customs associated with Duanwujie, such as hanging mugwort bouquets to keep away mosquitos as the days become hotter and drinking realgar wine to ward off spirits. Children wear sachets containing different Chinese herbs for the same effect. Lastly, people eat zongzi, triangle-shaped balls of rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Perhaps the most recognizable tradition is the dragon-boat racing. Typically, dragon boats consist of 22 people – 20 rowers, 1 drummer facing the paddlers, and 1 sweep who stands at the rear and steers. This year, 210 teams composed of 5,000 participants from across Taiwan and the rest of the world will compete in the three days of racing in Taipei. The largest competition in Taiwan, it takes place at Dajia Riverside Park and offers a winning prize of NT$3,190,000. (Click here for a schedule of events).
At the race, you’ll be sure to see people eating zongzi, and at exactly noon you may also witness egg balancing. It is said that if someone succeeds in balancing an egg at noon, they will have a lucky year.
AmCham Taipei wishes you a happy Dragon Boat Festival! 端午節快樂!