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Don’t Say Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

Jun. 24, 2020

The 端午节 (duānwǔ jié) is around the corner. It is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, meaning it falls on June 25 this year. It is a folk festival with its own unique blessings, celebrations, entertainment and food, a traditional holiday that originated in China and is now also celebrated in many other parts of Asia such as South Korea, Malaysia, and Japan.

When it comes to the Dragon Boat Festival “端午节(duān wǔ jié)”, you may think of eating dumplings “粽子 (zòng zi)”, watching “赛龙舟 (sài lóngzhōu) dragon-boat races”, commemorating “屈原 (qū yuán) Qu Yuan”, and so much more. Here’s some fascinating insight about the Dragon Boat Festival which will help paint a picture of how fun the Dragon Boat Festival can be despite its tragic origins.

Let’s first note that due to the historical context of the festival, it is not an appropriate practice to wish one another a “happy” Dragon Boat Festival as you would other holidays due to the Dragon Boat Festival’s somber roots.

The most notable of the unfortunate stories in Chinese history is the legend of “屈原 (qū yuán) Qu Yuan”. Qu Yuan was a patriotic Chinese scholar and poet as well as a minister to the King of State during the Warring States period. He was renowned for his unwavering dedication to the king.

The legend goes that on the fifth of May of the lunar calendar, Qu Yuan” was banished by the king. He consequently jumped into the Mi Luo River, thus killing himself. After his death, one of the towns men had a dream. He dreamed that Qu Yuan became much too thin. So he rallied the other villagers to make “粽子 (zòng zi)” by wrapping glutinous rice with reed or bamboo leaves.

The villagers then loaded the dumplings on dragon boats and one-by-one dropped them into the river. Since, in Chinese fables, the dragon was in charge of all the animals in the sea, they didn’t dare to eat any “粽子 (zòng zi).” So they figured that Qu Yuan could eat it all to regain his health.

An alternate tale, tells that the specially prepared food was meant to distract the fish, shrimp, and crabs long enough to prevent them from eating Qu Yuan’s body so the villagers could retrieve him quickly by boat. And it is said that it is how the races came to be.

Now that you know about that fateful day, instead of usual happy tidings, you can say “端午节安康 (duānwǔ jié ānkāng) wish you good health” to one another at the Dragon Boat Festival.

If you know much about the Chinese Zodiac, the fifth month is also known as the “month of poison” for the Chinese farmer’s calendar. This is because insects and pests are active during this summer month and people are more prone to catch infectious diseases. To ward them off, people hang wormwood, drink realgar wine, and “戴香包 (dài xiāng bāo) wear a sachet.”

Although it is very beautiful, the sachet is actually a small bag full of different spices which also used contained realgar essence and wormwood to repel insects and evil alike.

It is still a practice that is kept alive today as vendors sell sachets just about everywhere during the Chinese dragon boat festival. Likewise, customers buy them for the same reasons that they were originally used for so long ago; in hopes for “安康 (ān kāng) , health”, and happiness as well as fewer stings and bites from ravenous bugs.

安康 (ān kāng): Means peace and health.


zhù shēntǐ ānkāng
I wish you good health.

zhù dàjiā xìngfú ānkāng
I wish you all happiness and good health.

The “赛龙舟(sài lóng zhōu): Dragon boat race” was once for “bride-snatching”
in Jiande, Zhejiang, China. Historically, there was a particular custom of “龙舟抢亲 (lóng zhōu qiǎng qīn) dragon boat kidnapping” in order to get brides.

Until the 1940s, marriage by abduction, known as “抢亲 (qiǎng qīn) bride-snatching”, or bride kidnapping, occurred in rural China. Marriage by abduction was sometimes a groom’s answer to avoid paying a bride price. In other cases, scholars argue that it was a collusive act between the bride’s parents and the groom to circumvent the bride’s consent.

抢亲 (qiǎng qīn): bride-snatching.

抢 (qiǎng): snatch; grab.

亲 (qīn): bride.


qiǎngqīn shì gǔdài de yígè xísú
Bride-snatching is a custom in ancient times.

The month that the Dragon Boat Festival falls on is also referred to as “health month”. It is a very auspicious time and people use “五黄 (wǔ huáng) five yellows” and “五红 (wǔ hóng) five reds” to avoid five poisons, ward off evil spirits, and avoid the summer heat and insects.

Legend has it that the five poisons and monsters will harm the world when they arrive. They include snakes, centipedes, spiders, toads, and scorpions.

The five kinds of red dishes are used to symbolize the blood of the five poisons that, when eaten, will scare away the five poisons and monsters. The red dishes include roasted duck, edible amaranth, red oil duck eggs, crustaceans, and ricefield eel”.

The “Five Yellow” dishes are: “黄鳝 (huáng shàn) eel”, “黄鱼 (huáng yú) yellow croaker”, “黄瓜 (huáng guā) cucumber”, “咸鸭蛋 (xián yādàn) salted duck eggs” and “雄黄酒 (xióng huáng jiǔ) realgar wine”.

HSK 3 quiz

Which of the following statements is correct?

A.端午快乐 (duān wǔ kuài lè)

B.清明快乐 (qīng míng kuài lè)

C.端午安康 (duān wǔ ān kāng)

See Answer Analysis

You May Want to Learn More About The Dragon Boat Festival:
Chinese Dragon Boat Festival”
“The Dragon Boat Festival’s Unique, Traditional Treat—A Must Eat!”
Wearing a Sachet on Dragon Boat Festival (Elementary)”
A Chinese Nursery Rhyme about the Dragon Boat Festival (Beginner)”

HSK 1 quiz

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