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The Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival - The Story of Sticky Rice, Evil Spirits, a Loyal Official, and How it All Relates to You!


Chances are, you’ve probably seen them before, or at least smelled them, in the bustling marketplace of the oriental market. Maybe even tasted them, perfectly wrapped and steamed with love by the tender hands of grandparents. You know what they are—they are pyramid-shaped, wrapped in bamboo leaves, with some sort of treat—sweet or salty, you name it—in the middle, a treasure buried in rice. These are sticky rice dumplings, or Zong Zi, a delicious and traditional meal created and eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. To understand how these traditions came into existence, however, let’s first take a look at how it all began.

Originating from the Warring States Period in ancient China, Dragon Boat Festival has a lengthy history of over 2,000 years old! There are three most circulated stories concerning its origin, and one remains the most common. Taking place in the Warring States Period, this is the tale of a cherished and loyal official of the state of Chu named Qu Yuan.

The legend says that he was born in a highly respected family who often served in high ranks. Qu Yuan was an extremely dedicated official who spent his whole life bettering the state of Chu and strengthening its defenses. However, with his great character and success, fellow officers became envious of his fortune. They told lies about him, slandered him, and accused an innocent Qu Yuan of treason, which resulted in Yuan’s exile from his own kingdom.

Even in his exile, Qu Yuan remained loyal and patriotic. He composed many famous poems expressing his faithfulness to his country (many of which are still popular in China today!). Sadly, when the state of Qin conquered the capital of Chu, Qu Yuan despaired, and drowned himself in the Mi Luo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

The rest is a folk tale of how the tasty Zong Zi originated. When the villagers in Chu who appreciated Chu very much heard of his death, they went into the river to search for his body for a proper burial, but were unable to locate it. In order to preserve it from fish and evil spirits, the local people rowed their boats throughout the river whilst beating drums and hitting the water with their paddles to scare the spirits away. They also threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the sea animals so that they would not consume Qu Yuan’s body (that’s right, Zong Zi!). As a final touch, an elderly Chinese physician dumped a special type of wine into the river in order to poison anything that wanted to harm Qu Yuan.

This is a fascinating tale, and stemming from these events in the myth come a variety of traditions in the Dragon Boat Festival. For example, the day that Qu Yuan passed away is the day that the Festival is celebrated. Celebrations include Dragon Boat racing (to search for Qu Yuan), with wooden boats shaped and decorated like a Chinese dragon and teams which paddle in sync and with gusto, making sticky rice dumplings out of glutinous rice (to keep the fish from Qu Yuan, of course!), drinking wine (to poison the monsters…), and lastly, wearing perfume pouches to scare away evil spirits, just like the local people tried to do.

In all, the Dragon Boat Festival is an enthralling tale of Qu Yuan, a man with a loyal and kind heart, who was greatly wronged, yet still remained faithful to his country. His patriotism was apparent to the citizens of his home, which caused them to mourn deeply at his death and go to great lengths to preserve and protect his body. Many intriguing (and delicious!) celebrations and traditions formulate from the villagers’ tactics, and they still continue on to this day. And remember, even the little things you notice, perhaps at a market, or a buffet, or a friend’s dinner party, can have deep histories and stories, just like the Zong Zi. The next time you come across something like this, instead of pushing it away or just accepting it as some kind of "strange" celebration, take the time to dig deep into it. Ask questions, and get to know another culture. Because in the end, these festivals are not completely about evil spirits, or fish eating rice. They are about our common aspirations, feelings, and emotions we all have as humans, and by recognizing these things and continually finding similarities between all of our cultures, we can better understand each other and the world. As a result, we can begin to build a powerful connection which cannot be broken by anything.

SOURCES: (content and photo 1) (content and photo 2)

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