Learn Chinese: Don’t Say ‘Happy Dragon Boat Festival’

Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival

The 端午节 (duānwǔ jié) is around the corner. People celebrate it on June 25 this year, marking the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar. This festival holds its unique blessings, celebrations, entertainment, and food. It stands as a traditional holiday that originated in China and now enjoys celebrations in various parts of Asia, including South Korea, Malaysia, and Japan.

Exploring Dragon Boat Festival Customs

When it comes to the Dragon Boat Festival, known as ‘端午节 (duān wǔ jié)’ in Chinese, various customs come to mind. These customs include indulging in ‘粽子 (zòng zi)’ dumplings, watching thrilling ‘赛龙舟 (sài lóngzhōu)’ dragon-boat races, and paying tribute to the revered ‘屈原 (qū yuán) Qu Yuan,’ among other traditions. Now, let’s delve into some fascinating insights about the Dragon Boat Festival, shedding light on the festive atmosphere despite its somber historical roots.

A Tale of Qu Yuan

First and foremost, due to the festival’s historical context, it’s important to note that wishing each other a ‘happy’ Dragon Boat Festival, as commonly done for other holidays, might not be suitable, given its solemn origins.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

One of the most poignant stories in Chinese history revolves around the legend of ‘屈原 (qū yuán) Qu Yuan.’ Qu Yuan, a patriotic Chinese scholar, poet, and minister during the Warring States period, earned great respect from the king for his unwavering dedication.”

The legend tells us that the king banished Qu Yuan on the fifth day of the lunar calendar in May. 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.

Wishing ‘安康 (ān kāng) – Good Health’

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 suggests that villagers prepared special food to divert fish, shrimp, and crabs, preventing them from consuming Qu Yuan’s body. The villagers used this strategy to swiftly recover him by boat, leading to the believed origin of the dragon boat races.

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.

The ‘Month of Poison’ and Its Traditions

For those familiar with the Chinese Zodiac, it’s important to note that the Chinese farmer’s calendar designates the fifth month as the ‘month of poison. ” 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.

The Sachet’s Charm
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)



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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