Dragon Boat Festival

Think of the Dragon Boat Festival and what comes to mind is freshly cooked rice dumplings and dragon boat races. Perhaps, you’d be more familiar with the names Duanwu or Rice Dumpling Festival instead. But did you know where the festival originated from, and how it’s traditionally celebrated? 

If you want to impress your family and friends with some tidbits about the celebration while chowing down on rice dumplings, here are 7 fun facts about the Dragon Boat Festival that’s coming up on 22nd June 2023

1. Its origin story was in fact, not really about dragon boats

Chinese New Year is celebrated by the Chinese and Good Friday falls on a Friday. So, Dragon Boat Festival means it must have something to do with dragon boats, right? Well, the origin story had very little to do with dragon boats.

At its core, the Dragon Boat Festival is a heartfelt commemoration of Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet and statesman who was passionate about and cared for his country and its people. Legend has it that Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River, driven by his profound sorrow over the decline of his beloved homeland – when the capital of Chu was defeated by Qin in 278 BC.

Dragon Boat Festival - Hot Weather

But the festival’s history doesn’t start and end with Qu Yuan’s tale; it actually predates him. The 5th lunar month was marked as the month of poison due to the sweltering summer days. Gradually, the Dragon Boat Festival emerged with traditional practices as a way to safeguard against illnesses and ward off evil spirits, ensuring the community’s well-being.

So, where is the part about dragon boats in all these stories? Well, read on to find out.

2. The date changes every year, ranging across 2 months

Dragon Boat Festival - Lunar Calendar
Image adapted from: Your Chinese Astrology

The Dragon Boat Festival takes place on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month each year, coinciding with the solemn remembrance of Qu Yuan’s passing. Since it follows the lunar calendar, the date varies each year, usually falling between 25th May and 24th July. This year, it’s happening on 22nd June

While the Dragon Boat Festival may not be a public holiday in Singapore, it holds immense significance in China. Our friends in China are granted a 3-day break – specifically from 22nd-24th June this year – to immerse themselves fully in the festivities. 

3. Rice dumplings are eaten to commemorate a poet

Singaporeans have a knack for connecting events to food. When it comes to the Dragon Boat Festival, one thing is crystal clear: it’s about the rice dumplings, or as we call them, bak zhangs or zong zi.

Dragon Boat Festival - Rice Dumplings
Image credit: Eatbook

For the uninitiated, rice dumplings are sticky glutinous rice with fillings, wrapped up snugly in bamboo or reed leaves. They come in various shapes and sizes, but often take the form of triangular-based pyramids. 

Dragon Boat Festival - Rice Dumplings Ingredients
Image credit: @gotohaneka via Instagram

There are many different types of rice dumplings too. The Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, and Hakka dumplings tend to be more savoury with fillings like pork belly, mushrooms, dried prawns, and salted egg yolks. The Nyonya dumplings – also called “kuih chang” – are sweeter from the use of candied winter melon as an ingredient.

But why rice dumplings?

Dragon Boat Festival - Dragon Boat Racing
Image credit: @jybookclub via Instagram 

When Qu Yuan ended his own life in the depths of the Miluo River, his body could not be found despite the people’s desperate search efforts. In an attempt to divert the attention of the fish away from the poet’s remains, they started dropping sticky rice into the river, hoping the fish would feast on the rice instead.

For many years since his passing, the people would throw rice into the river to feed Qu Yuan’s spirit for many years to commemorate his death. 

However, the food offerings intended for him were believed to be intercepted by a water dragon, as the Chinese considered certain freshwater fish, like the catfish, to be akin to dragons. To outsmart this creature, the rice was then wrapped in leaves or stuffed into bamboo stalks, so that the dragon couldn’t devour it.

Dragon Boat Festival - Bak Zhang
Image credit: Chong Wai San

In a rapidly changing world, it’s heartwarming to witness the resilience of certain traditions that endure through the passage of time. While the number may be few, there are still families who uphold the art of crafting rice dumplings from scratch, preserving the essence of the Dragon Boat Festival. 

For those who have no idea how to make rice dumplings, you can still enjoy the delicacies as they can be easily bought from wet markets and even atas restaurants. 

4. There are other festive foods besides rice dumplings

While rice dumplings may be the quintessential celebratory food of the Dragon Boat Festival in Singapore, the festivities stretch far and wide, embracing a variety of delicacies across different cultures and regions. Within China itself, there’s a huge diversity of festive food. 

Dragon Boat Festival - Jiandui
Image credit: China Educational Tours

The locals from the Fujian Province celebrate with Jiandui, a sweet fried cake believed to patch up the sky and fix any holes, ensuring that the rain doesn’t pour endlessly.

Dragon Boat Festival - Pancakes
Pancake rolls.
Image credit: China Educational Tours

Meanwhile, in Wuhan, the focus turns to the seasonal delicacy of eel, while those in Wenzhou would prepare rolled-up thin pancakes. In Nanchang, besides eating eggs steamed with tea, the egg shells are dyed red and hung around children’s necks for good luck.

5. Dragon boat race winners are said to have good luck for a year

You may be wondering, “so what does this have to do with dragon boats?”

Let’s rewind to the tale of Qu Yuan. When he met his tragic fate in the river, the people sprang into action, desperately trying to recover his body from the river’s depths. They hopped on boats, not only to toss rice into the water but also to beat on drums to send those fish fleeing in fear.

Dragon Boat Festival - Dragon Boat Race

That’s how dragon boat racing became intertwined with the festival. Amidst the feasting on rice dumplings, people embraced this sport. Picture a team of 30-60 paddlers, propelling the dragon boat forward with synchronised paddling. Legend has it that the team that emerges victorious in the race will be blessed with good luck and a year filled with happiness.

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To get in on the action this year, you can watch dragon boat races at the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival, happening on
24th and 25th June 2023 at PAssion Wave @ Bedok Reservoir Park

6. Traditionally, mugwort leaves are hung to ward off diseases

Just like Chinese New Year or Deepavali, the Dragon Boat Festival carries its own set of traditions. Even though some customs may not be widely practiced in Singapore, they still hold significant meaning in China.

As the festival falls in the month of poison, where hot summer days often result in illnesses, precautions are taken in China to prevent the spread of diseases and to attract good luck. 

Dragon Boat Festival - Mugwort Leaves
Image credit: @cjfleur via Instagram

For one, the fragrant aroma of Chinese mugwort and calamus was believed to repel flies and mosquitoes. Hanging them outside homes not only served as a protective measure against these pesky insects causing diseases, but was also believed to invite good fortune into the family.

Dragon Boat Festival - Realgar
Image credit: CGTN

In addition to the use of herbs and plants, another tradition involves realgar wine. This unique concoction is made from fermented cereals and powdered realgar, a type of arsenic mineral also known as ruby sulphur. It possessed properties as an antidote for all poisons, holding the ability to repel insects and ward off evil spirits.

However, the wine carries some toxicity. As an alternative, the wine is painted on the child’s forehead, acting as a protective barrier against mosquito bites. It was even used as a disinfectant, with people spraying it into the corners of their rooms to purify the space.

7. Perfume sachets are worn to ward off evil

Image credit: Aprilis Garden Store via AliExpress

Over the years, people found new and creative ways to uphold the customs of the Dragon Boat Festival. One way is to handmake perfume sachets, where mugwort and realgar are placed within beautifully sewn pouches, decorated with embroidery.

Dragon Boat Festival - Perfume Sachets Leather
Today, some even use leather to make the perfume sachets, turning them into cute keychains.
Image credit: @eclot_design via Instagram

These aromatic sachets serve as good luck talismans, providing protection against evil forces. They are usually hung around children’s necks or adorned on the front of garments.

Today, you can also get hold of these perfume sheets through online marketplaces like Shopee and Lazada. Apart from hanging them on bags as keychains, some would even place them in their wardrobe to keep their clothes smelling fresh.

Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival in Singapore

Now you’re armed with your newfound knowledge about the Dragon Boat Festival. The next time you gather with your loved ones to enjoy some bak zhang, you can impress them with fun facts about the festival. After all, it goes beyond just eating rice dumplings and dragon boat racing.

For more cultural FAQs:

Cover image adapted from: Eatbook

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