China has several major holidays, virtually none of which we celebrate in the West. The Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) is increasingly recognized more in the US by non-Chinese, but still barely perceptibly.
Other holidays include Qing Ming Festival (which reveres the dead), Mid-Autumn Festival (which reveres the moon), May Day (international labor day the began in Chicago, but is not recognized in the US on that day) and National Day (when the CCP took over power from the KMT).
The last one is the Dragon Boat Festival, which is the focus of this post. It focuses on dragon boats, poets, sticky rice and tensions with the government. All are very poignant pieces of Chinese history.
Dragon Boat Festival’s History
Chinese holidays have involved histories, most of which are outside the scope of this post. While there is a lengthy backstory behind Christmas, it’s probably more interesting just to detail elves, presents, Santa, Jesus and an angel or two. The rest, if you’re interested, is out there. (On Wikipedia.)
In short, during the Warring States Period in Chinese history, there were – as you can guess – a bunch of disparate kingdoms vying to become the ultimate rulers of a central government. Qu Yuan was a minister of high status. When the Chu royal house aligned with a group he didn’t agree with, he was banished.
For 28 years, he wrote poetry in exile. Then, the group the Chu aligned with captured the capital of his own people and he committed suicide by drowning himself in a river. The people, who adored his works, tried to save his body by throwing rice in the water so the fish would eat the grain instead of Qu Yuan’s flesh.
Nowadays, to commemorate his legacy, people make zongzi, a dish made by wrapping rice and a filling inside zong leaf and steaming it. It can be sweet or savory, but it’s always delicious. Additionally, people host dragon boat races with dragon dances and music and all sorts of merriment.
The Dragon Boat Festival in Foshan
A cool aspect of China is how diverse each region is and how distinct the customs are. Each village or town has a particular tradition not found exactly replicated anywhere else.
In a certain village in Foshan they’ve hosted a ridiculously animated race for years.
In the months leading up to the competitive event, you can see oarsmen practicing out on bodies of water across the city. While my buddy, Danny, and I crossed the foot bridge over the manmade canal to hit the pub and watch Arsenal play (and probably lose again), we heard drums beating, paddles slapping the water and synchronized exhales.
There were sayings written on red paper everywhere and allusions to the boat races. Qu Yuan’s image appeared in malls and schools. People excitedly rumbled on about it.
I was told by many of my Chinese friends we had to go with them to the village, and so we did.
What is Dragon Boat Festival Like?
Our buddies picked us up in a packed van and so we went. As we approached, I noticed that this was the very village I once got super lost in on a long run while training for my marathon.
It was the quintessential modern Chinese village. Loads of wealth, modest housing, low key clothing. It had typical southern Chinese architecture, or lingnan style, with gray brick and dark wood. Roads barely fit a small sedan, and pedestrians and vehicles shared the same space. There is an orderliness somewhere between midtown Manhattan’s meticulous grid and New Delhi’s what-the-fuck.
We arrived, and after meandering through some narrow streets and a footbridge apparently doubling as one for cars, we walked around.
In steadily misting rain we walked around a jovial, spirited crowd. There were crowds huddled on bleachers underneath a yellow tarp, dirty droplets dripping down.
Firecrackers sounded off in the distance, beckoning crowds to observe a dragon dance. Someone banged a gong as the shizi moved in rhythm.
In my peripheral, I caught a dragon boat zooming forward toward an L-turn. I rushed over to see how on earth they would avoid shattering the bow of the ship, sending everyone in the murky village water like a carnival dunk tank.
Suddenly, ten folks on the right side dipped their oars straight into the water, sinewy biceps strained, while the left side paddled ferociously. The longboat lurched through the turn just about making it unscathed until thwack! the dragon figurehead popped off into the canal and the scrapping of wood on stone could be heard over a groaning crowd.
This repeated ceaselessly throughout the day, as a local channel broadcasted the contests on TV. We grabbed a couple of beers to beat the rain and watched under the shelter of a leaky roof.
As the day wore on, we were noticed as outsiders by quite a few, seeing as a white kid, a brown dude and a black girl were in a Chinese village of thousands.
Some of the younger dragon boaters let us paddle along a bit, butts getting wet in the hull, opaque water washing up over the ship’s edge.
This was an awesome experience, both seeing and participating ever so briefly in a major Chinese holiday. Part of the joy of living in a foreign country is enjoying festivals you cannot partake in back home. This was enjoyable, worthwhile. Thank you.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Have you ever celebrated Dragon Boat Festival?
Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!