On the 5th day of the 5th lunar month in the Chinese lunar calendar, southern China and Hong Kong erupt into one of the most colourful, vibrant and downright exciting cultural extravaganzas in the world. Locals gorge themselves on bizarre sticky rice treats and wash it down with a particularly strong brand of rice wine. Otherwise quiet rivers and lakes are sent sloshing and splashing to life as thousands of ornately decorated dragon boats descend upon the water. But the Dragon Boat Festival is more than just an excuse to eat, drink and make a scene – this cultural extravaganza is one of the most significant days on the Chinese lunar calendar!
Like most festivals and holidays in Asia, the Dragon Boat Festival (also known as the Duanwu or Tuen Ng Festival) has its roots in hundreds of years worth of traditions. Depending on who you ask, you’ll be told of the festival’s connection with either the summer solstice and the dragon, the bad luck of the number 5, or Qu Yuan. In reality, each of these elements have a part to play in the festival’s traditions, and lend a certain energy to this incredible display of culture and history. If you’re exploring China or Hong Kong during the sunny summer months of June, you’ll certainly see the country at it’s very best and brightest – but fitting into the mix takes a bit more effort. These are our top tips for experiencing the festival like a local.
1. Get in touch with your masculine side.
Since the Dragon Boat Festival is based upon the lunisolar calendar, it is dictated not by a day of the week or month, but by the position of the sun and moon. Thanks to its link with the heavens, the Duanwu Festival falls squarely on the summer solstice, when the sun is at its peak. While this might have little to do with masculinity in other countries, in China, the sun is intrinsically linked with masculine energy and “maleness”.
Some would say that the Dragon Boat Festival is a celebration of that energy, and all of the brute force and raucous that goes along with it. It’s also part of why the dragon – another symbol of maleness – is an important focus for the festival. To get in on it like a local, prepare to find you inner tough guy – you’ll might need it to finish the rice wine!
2. Save some room for zongzi.
Like a lot of celebrations in Asia, the Dragon Boat Festival is all about the food! During the celebration, you’ll find the locals gorging themselves on zongzi, a special glutinous rice treat stuffed with meat and other fillings, and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. But the locals here don’t eat zongzi just because it’s tasty (although that helps) – the treat has a leading role in the story of Qu Yuan, arguably the star of the Dragon Boat Festival tale.
Thousands of years ago in the Chu State, Qu Yuan was banished by his king after opposing an alliance the king made with another king, Qin. After twenty-eight years of his exile, Qu heard that Qin had eventually conquered the Chu State – and in his grief committed suicide by throwing himself into the Miluo River. Fisherman in the area heard of his suicide, and rushed out to the site of his drowning in search of him. In the meantime, they threw zongzi into the river to feed the fish, so to salvage Qu Yuan’s body – eventually wrapping the zongzi in reed leaves as offerings to Qu Yuan’s spirit.
Nowadays, locals in China and Hong Kong still throw the sticky rice treat into the rivers, but save plenty to eat for themselves. To get in on the action, look for local street food stalls selling it – you won’t have any trouble finding a place to try a bit of zongzi!
3. Steel yourself for plenty of xionghuang wine.
Don’t count on visiting Asia without getting a taste of some truly unique alcoholic beverages, especially in China! While rice wine and other alcoholic concoctions are famous throughout the country, xionghuang wine (sometimes called realgar wine) is usually only enjoyed during the Dragon Boat Festival at the height of summer. Though the drink is sometimes used a a pesticide and insecticide against mosquitos, don’t let its multi-faceted usage turn you off from sampling it. In Chinese traditional medicine, xionghuang wine is considered a universal antidote against poison and evil spirits – which is of particular importance during the Dragon Boat holiday.
The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, landing on two of the unluckiest numbers in the entire calendar. Some say that locals will drink this concoction to ward off of the evil spirits brought on by the unlucky day – but even more will say that xionghuang wine became a popular Duanwu drink because of its connection with the death of Qu Yuan. That’s because a doctor cast xionghuang wine into the river along with zongzi, and brought forth a water dragon that the fisherman quickly killed.
Whatever the cultural significance of xionghuang wine, it’s one of the best ways to get a real taste of the Dragon Boat Festival. Careful, though – xionghuang wine is famously potent, and if you’re drinking it alongside the locals, you might not be able to keep up!
4. Find a front row seat for the races!
Perhaps the most exciting part of the Duanwu Festival are the Dragon Boat Races, which now traditionally only occur in southern China and Hong Kong. These boat races are (you guessed it) also connected to the story of Qu Yuan and the fisherman that paddled out to find him, but the competition has now taken on a life of its own!
Some dragon boats have as few as 10 paddlers, but traditional boats can hold up to 50 paddlers at once. During the races, a single drummer or caller stationed at the bow of the boat keeps the group in rhythm. While some races include only a few teams and boats, races in Hong Kong and other parts of southern China can draw in thousands of competitors on hundreds of boats – and you’d be unlikely to find a good vantage point to watch if you didn’t arrive early!
In Hong Kong, head to Stanley Main Beach, Aberdeen Promenade, Shing Mun River or Sai Kung Park for the best events. If you’re in Shanghai, find 800 athletes in 52 teams at the Suzhou Creek Dragon Boat Race, or head to the Jinji Lake races for a mixed bag of both foreign and local athletes!