YOUth should know: the significance of the Dragon Boat Festival
Here are five things you should know about the Chinese festival occurring on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month every year.
Many Singaporeans either celebrate or at least are aware of several well-known Chinese traditional festivals like Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival.
However, there is a lesser-known festival that many celebrate unknowingly.
Some Chinese Singaporeans often consume bak zhang, also known as zongzi (sticky rice dumplings), as well as spectate Dragon Boat races in the month of June – all festive activities commonly practised during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Despite being less popular among Singaporeans, the festival still holds deep cultural significance in Chinese culture and history.
Celebrated across Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, the Dragon Boat Festival has many names across Asia, including Duanwu Festival, Duānwǔ Jié, Double Fifth, and Tuen Ng Jit.
Here are five things you should know about the Dragon Boat Festival:
1. It commemorates the life and death of a famous Chinese scholar
It is widely believed that the Dragon Boat Festival originated in ancient China based on the suicide of the poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom, Qu Yuan in 278 BCE.
Qu Yuan’s wisdom and intellectual ways was said to have antagonised other court officials, resulting in his untimely fate as they falsely accused him of conspiracy.
Having been exiled by the king, Qu Yuan then drowned himself by attaching a heavy stone to his chest and jumping into the Miluo River in 278 BCE at the age of 61.
In an attempt to save him, the people of Chu searched desperately in their boats, but were unable to save him. As a result, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated every year to commemorate this attempt at rescuing Qu Yuan.
The locals also threw sacrificial cooked rice into the river for Qu Yuan, in hopes that the rice would prevent the fishes from consuming Qu Yuan’s body.
Following this, a method of wrapping the cooked rice in bamboo leaves to increase its weight was devised, allowing it to sink deeper into the river. From there, the tradition of making zongzi to enjoy during the Dragon Boat Festival began.
2. It occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month every year
The festival occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month every year, according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar.
The traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar which identifies years, months and days according to astronomical phenomena – days begin and end at midnight, and months begin on the day of the new moon.
Years begin on the second or third new moon after the winter solstice. As such, even though the Dragon Boat Festival is held on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese calendar, its actual date varies each year.
Although modern-day China uses the Gregorian calendar, the traditional Chinese calendar governs holidays, such as the Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival, in both China and overseas Chinese communities, like Singapore.
The Dragon Boat Festival is an official holiday in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
3. Festival activities aim to ward off disease and evil spirits
The Dragon Boat Festival is a celebration where many eat zongzi (sticky rice dumplings), drink xiong huang jiu (realgar wine) and race dragon boats.
Other activities include hanging icons of Zhong Kui (a guardian against evil spirits) on doors, hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, making an egg stand at noon, writing spells and wearing perfumed medicine bags.
These activities and games were regarded by the ancients as an effective way to fend off evil spirits and prevent disease, while promoting good health and well-being.
4. Festive celebrations are prevalent in Singapore
As the festival is celebrated in many Asian countries, each country has their own festival traditions and activities specific to their own region.
In Singapore, the Dragon Boat Festival is most popular for its boat racing performances as well as its celebratory festive foods like zongzi.
Annual dragon boat races are held in June at the Bedok Reservoir, the Kallang River and Gardens by the Bay Marina Channel in celebration of the cultural event.
Other festival activities held in Singapore include the yearly Wan Qing Dragon Boat Festival organised by the National Heritage Board.
There is also a special kind of zongzi eaten in Singapore called flower zongzi. Consisting of a light green rice powder dyed with flower juice, the flower zongzi are wrapped in a multi-angled shape the size of an egg.
5. The festival is listed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Prior to South Korea’s nomination of the Gangneung Danoje Festival (a festival also celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month) as an intangible cultural heritage property to UNESCO’s list, the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival was not formally under UNESCO’s protection.
South Korea’s move to nominate their own festival in 2005 sparked an uproar amongst the Chinese over the festival’s origin.
Later in 2009, the Dragon Boat Festival was eventually added to the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List.