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UPDATED: May 27, 2009 NO. 22 JUN. 4, 2009
Dragons, Boats and Rice Dumplings
Ancient Dragon Boat Festival gets a new lease on life


STICKY DELIGHT: Rice dumplings are one of the favorite traditional foods of the Chinese CFP 

Come May in China, it is difficult not to notice the emergence in small food stores and large supermarkets of zongzi (rice dumpling), a pyramid-shaped snack made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. In some stores, rice dumplings are made on the spot, and the aroma seduces shoppers to buy the parcels in large numbers. They are all part of the buildup to one of the country's most important traditional festivals, duanwu, or Dragon Boat Festival.

The event, with a history of more than 2,000 years, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of each year according to the lunar calendar. This year, it fell on May 28.

Ancient customs

Besides eating rice dumplings and holding dragon boat races, there are also other customs in China to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, such as hanging Chinese mugwort, an aromatic plant, on the door and drinking realgar alcohol said to prevent insects' bites.


ROW BOYS, ROW: Dragon boat racing in Zhejiang Province in 2008 ZHUANG YINGCHANG 

These traditions originated in a belief of the ancient Chinese people that the fifth lunar month is an "evil month" when plagues are likely to occur. So measures must be taken to protect the health of people, especially children.

In the past, during the Dragon Boat Festival, parents would tie strings made of threads of different colors on their children's necks, wrists and ankles, or hang small fragrant bags around their necks. By doing this, parents hoped to drive away evil spirits and bring fortune and happiness to their children.

The hand-made fragrance bags were normally made of red, yellow, green and blue silk threads, fine satin and cotton. Designs of various animals, flowers and fruits were often embroidered on the bags, while fragrant Chinese herbal medicines were placed inside the bag.

New ideas

However, with the passing of time, many of these customs have been ignored or forgotten by people today. To a certain degree, the Dragon Boat Festival seems to be a day just to eat rice dumplings to many people. In the city, it is very common for people to buy rice dumplings in shops, and few people now can wrap rice dumplings themselves or make fragrance bags by hand. How to keep and further explore the cultural connotation of traditional festivals and make traditional celebrations fit the modern life is a problem facing people today.

In 2007, the Dragon Boat Festival, along with the Tomb-Sweeping Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival, was added to the list of public holidays of China, a measure designed to preserve and pass down traditional culture. Chinese people now have at least three days to celebrate each of the festivals.

Many people choose to spend the holiday by short-distance traveling. Governments at all levels are also trying their best to work out some new forms of entertainment during traditional festivals, hoping to keep festivities in line with the interest and lifestyles of modern Chinese.

For example, this year there were various cultural activities held in Beijing for the Dragon Boat Festival, including rice dumpling-wrapping competitions, folk custom performances, dragon boat races and exhibitions about the history and tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival. All these activities last around 10 days, and all people are welcome to participate. Through these efforts, the charm of the traditional culture has attracted modern urbanites.

Festival Origin

SMELLING GOOD: A woman chooses fragrance bags from a colorful collection (WANG WEN)

There are many versions about the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival. The most widely accepted one is the explanation that the festival was set up to commemorate Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet and a great politician in the Spring and Autumn Period (B.C. 770 -476). Many popular customs of celebrating the festival, such as eating rice dumplings and dragon boat races, came from the tales about Qu.

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