Some holidays are so much fun that they catch on outside of their culture. The most obvious example is probably Christmas, which is celebrated around the world by people who aren’t even Christian. Similarly, in recent years, the Dragon Boat Festival has moved beyond China to become an international holiday celebrated by people who may know little about the holiday’s origins.
The Dragon Boat Festival is one of three major Chinese holidays, along with the Spring and Moon Festivals. Of the three, it is possibly the oldest, dating back to the Warring States Period in 227 B.C. The festival commemorates Qu Yuan, a minister in the service of the Chu Emperor. Despairing over corruption at court, Qu threw himself into a river. Townspeople jumped into their boats and tried in vain to save him. Then, hoping to distract hungry fish from his body, the people scattered rice on the water.
Over the years, the story of Qu’s demise transformed into the traditions of racing dragon boats and eating zongzi – a kind of rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. The races have certainly captured the imagination of people from all over the world. Every spring there are nearly 60 dragon boat races held outside of China in cities from Vancouver to Sydney, from Gdańsk, Poland to Cape Town, South Africa. Canada alone has nearly 50 dragon boat teams and Germany has nearly 30.
So what is it about the Dragon Boat Festival that appeals to foreigners? “It’s an unusual sport,” says one racer from Germany. “It’s not like everybody’s doing it. That’s one of the reasons that there’s such great team spirit in a dragon boat team – everybody feels like we’re doing something special.” And what about the zongzi? “Ehhh, they’re not bad, I guess,” he says. “Something of an acquired taste. I just haven’t really acquired it yet.”
In 2017, we follow the footsteps of wellturn to experience the traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Festival.