The Duanwu Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. For thousands of years, Duanwu has been marked by eating Zongzi and racing dragon boats.
The taste of Zongzi, a pyramid-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves to give it a special flavor, varies greatly across China. Zongzi is often made of rice mixed with dates in Northern China, because dates are abundant in the area. Eastern China’s Jiaxing County is famous for its pork-stuffed Zongzi. In the southern province of Guangdong, people stuff Zongzi with pork, ham, chestnuts and other ingredients, making them very rich in flavor. In Sichuan province, Zongzi is usually served with a sugar dressing. Most people still maintain the tradition of eating Zongzi on the day of the Duanwu Festival. But the special delicacy has become so popular that you can now buy it all the year round.
Duanwu is also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, because dragon boat races are the most popular activity during the festival, especially in Southern China. A dragon boat is shaped like a dragon, and is brightly painted in red, white, yellow and black. Usually, a dragon boat is 20 to 40 meters long, and needs several dozen people to row it. Boatmen row the boat in cadence with the drumbeats, as the captain standing in the bow of the boat waves a small flag to help coordinate the rowing. Before the race gets underway, a solemn ceremony is held to worship the Dragon King.
Dragon boat racing is quite a spectacle, with drums beating, colorful flags waving, and thousands of people cheering on both sides of the river. Nowadays, it has become a popular sporting activity in Southern China. International dragon boat races are held in Guangzhou and Hong Kong every year.
The Duanwu Festival used to have other interesting customs that are no longer commonly observed, though you may still find them practiced in some rural areas.
Ancient Chinese believed the day of Duanwu was unlucky because midsummer was just around the corner. The hot weather used to bring various diseases, which could spread rampantly. Dispelling disease and driving out evil were the main purpose of the festival. People would paste on their front doors pictures of Zhongkui, a legendary Chinese ghost-catcher. People would also use cattail and mugwort leaves to drive away mosquitoes and other insects.
Since children are generally the most vulnerable to disease, they received extra care at this special time. Children would wear necklaces or bracelets, made of red, yellow, blue, white and black threads, to keep evil away from them. They would also receive colorful pouches containing fragrant herbal medicines as presents. They hung these around their necks, and would compete with one another to see whose pouch had the finest needlework. Mothers also made sure to bathe their children in water boiled with herbal medicines. Modern science has proven that these medicines are, in fact, quite beneficial to health.
Ancient Chinese believed realgar was an antidote for all poisons, and therefore most effective to drive away evil spirits and kill insects. So everyone would drink some realgar wine during the Duanwu Festival, and children would have the Chinese character for “King” written on their foreheads with realgar wine.
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