By Elaine Dunn

When is it?

Duan Wu Festival, also known as Double Fifth or Dragon Boat Festival, as it is known in the western hemisphere, is possibly one of the most well-known Chinese festivals internationally. As one of its names implies, it falls on and is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in China, which happens to be June 12 in 2013.

Although long-celebrated all over Asia, the festival was not declared a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China (mainland) until 2008 – the first time since the 1940s.

There are many legends and myths connected with this festival.

The most well-known of these revolves around Qu Yuan, a poet and descendant of the royal house of Chu (one of the seven warring states) in the Zhou Dynasty.

Qu was a high-ranking official who supported the fight against the invading State of Qin, a rival within the seven states. However, a corrupt official lied about Qu and the king decided to align forces with the State of Qin. Qu opposed the decision and was banished into exile by the king. During his exile, Qu wrote many patriotic poems such as “Li Sao” (The Lament), “Tian Wen” (Ask Questions of the Heaven) and “Jiu Ge” (Nine Songs) to demonstrate his love of and loyalty to his country. When the State of Qin captured the capital of the State of Chu in 278 B.C., Qu threw himself into the Miluo River in despair.

When the villagers heard about his suicide, they paddled out into the river, beating drums loudly to scare away the fish. They also threw rice into the river to feed the fish so the fish would not eat Qu’s body. These two activities gave rise to the traditions of eating zhongzi (粽子) and dragon boat racing (龍舟賽).

An alternate myth around the festival is that the fifth month of the lunar year is considered an evil month because it usually is very rainy, which threatens the ruination of young crops. The fifth day of the month was equally inauspicious as the mystical river dragon was supposed to rear itself. Agrarian communities placated the river dragon with offerings so it would bless them the rest of the year with just the right amount of rainfall. Therefore, the dragon motif was attached to the festival.

What happens on this day?

Dragon boat racing, though, is no longer just a Chinese or even Asian event. The highly competitive sport now takes place in more than 50 countries around the world. Modern-day dragon boats usually run 40-ft long and are approximately 4-ft wide. There are 10 rows of seats for 20 paddlers sitting side-by-side. Besides the paddlers, each boat also has a caller (a drummer) who sits at the front of the boat beating a drum so the paddlers can synchronize their strokes – the key to staying afloat and moving swiftly in the water. At the stern sits the steersman who navigates the boat. Each boat is decorated with a colorful dragon head at the front and a dragon tail at the back.

Before each race, a Taoist priest or Buddhist monk is called upon to dot the dragon eyes with red paint – a symbolic gesture to awaken the dragon. At the end of the race, the eyes are painted white to put the dragon back to sleep for another year.

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