China Celebrates Dragon Boat Festival

Today is Duanwu Jie, or the Dragon Boat Festival. It is one of China’s longheld traditional holidays. Some background on Dragon Boat Festival, from Global Times via Xinhua:

Celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of every year, the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the country’s oldest festivals, dating back some 2300 years. According to legend, the festival celebrates the patriot, poet and exiled minister Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in grief when his home state of Chu was invaded.

Thousands of years later, people continue to celebrate the holiday by racing dragon boats and eating zongzi, which are a type of rice dumpling originally thrown into the river to keep fish away from Qu’s body.

Over the years, the festival has grown into a sporting and cultural event around the world, with dragon boat races taking place among Chinese communities in cities such as Boston and Victoria, Canada.

In 2008, China designated three traditional festivals — Dragon Boat Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day, and Mid-Autumn Festival — as ‘public holidays.’ Chi-Chi Zhang of the Associated Press writes on what cultural implications this may have for many Chinese. (Li Huizi of Xinhua also has a similar story.):

The government’s decision to elevate three traditional festivals to national holidays gives Chinese, especially city dwellers, a chance to return to their roots and marks an evolution in the country’s leisure time. Days off were once considered a frivolity — the two-day weekend was introduced fewer than 15 years ago — but have increasingly been added to the national calendar as the government embraced free-market reforms and tried to boost domestic spending.

[…] “Time off from work gives me time to celebrate these holidays properly, with traditional activities like dragon boat racing,” said Ma, a 32-year-old public relations manager for an environmental activist group. To prepare for this year’s festival, Ma practiced several times a week with the Beijing Friendship Dragon Boat team. The team did not miss a beat Thursday at the International Dragon Boat Competition in southern Hunan province, Ma said, even while competing in a thunderstorm.

[…] The shorter holidays — which also mark the mid-autumn and tomb-sweeping festivals — mean many Chinese are staying closer to home, and some observers say it has also spurred interest in Chinese culture.

This year, Hubei officials have submitted a UNESCO application for the Dragon Boat Festival to be recognized as an “Intangible Culture Heritage.” In 2005, the Republic of Korea successfully submitted “Ganjeung Danojie (Duanwu) festival” as an intangible heritage, though in practice the festivals in the ROK and PRC are quite different. From Wang Jingqiong of China Daily:

China’s application of Duanwu Festival comprises four parts – the Duanwu customs of Qu Yuan’s hometown in Zigui county of Hubei province, boat race of Huangshi city in Hubei, Miluo riverbank customs in Hunan province, and customs in Suzhou of Jiangsu province, Jiang said.

[…] In China, however, the Duanwu Festival is more or less limited to eating Zongzi (rice dumplings), drinking wine, racing dragon boats and remembering Qu Yuan, an ancient Chinese poet and minister, whose suicide was widely believed to be the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Jiang said if China’s Duanwu Festival is added to the UNESCO list, it could influence more generations to come.

He admitted that the Chinese should feel pressured, as there’s still a “lot left to do to protect and promote” the tradition.

Read also William Foreman’s piece for AP on possible modern day undertones for the Dragon Boat Festival.

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