China’s Dragon Boat Festival, with its colorful and creative boats crafted to resemble mythical dragons, is one of the world’s most incredible and memorable events. Held every year in June, spectators from all over the world gather alongside the rivers to marvel at the artistic creations and cheer the contestants on as they row frantically toward the finish line.
Húnán province, China.
Fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
Dating back to 287BC, the event itself has tragic roots. It commemorates the suicide of poet-statesman Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the river out of political protest. Filled with despair, the local people attempted to keep the fish and evil spirits away from Qu by beating drums and splashing their oars in the waters of the river. The tradition lives on with local boaters decorating their crafts like dragons, from snout to tail, with brilliant colorful scales, splashing the water madly with their paddles and beating drums just as their ancestors did centuries ago.
The festival is also dedicated to the God of the Water, with locals adorning their homes with calamus and moxa herbs hung in doorways and pictures of Chung Kuei, believed to be a demon slayer, hung on people’s walls. Adults sip hsiung huang wine, made of rice wine, and attempt to stand an egg on its end at exactly noon to determine whether the upcoming year will be lucky.
Spectators are advised to arrive early for the festivities in order to get a waterside spot for the best view of the narrow boats as they stream past. Enjoy the taste of a local Tsingtao Beer and snack on zòngzi, triangular dumplings made of rice wrapped in bamboo leaves in memory of the rice that was scattered as an offering to the sacred memory of Qu Yuan.
Incense and gongs dot the waterside, and excitement fills the air as the brightly colored streamlined water crafts glide by, with skilled rowers all vying for the finish line. The winner is determined when one of the rowers straddles the dragon’s head at the front of his boat and grabs the winner’s flag. The race is often won with contestants finishing within fractions of a second of one another. Sounds of firecrackers fill the air as background music for the traditional dragon dances that are performed along the edge of the river in celebration of the festivities.
One phrase in particular that visitors attending the Dragon Boat Festival should master is “Nǐ chī fànle ma?”, which means have you eaten yet. It embodies the feast-like atmosphere that the event entails and celebrates the fact that this now comfortable area once faced the real threat of starvation.
As with any public event, certain routine safety precautions should be adhered to such as keeping valuables well concealed and generally being aware of your surroundings at all times to avoid any possible incidents. Tourists with cameras should be cautious not to take pictures of anything that could be perceived as being military or a security interest to avoid possible misunderstandings with the Chinese authorities. For the most part, if you stick to taking pictures of the race itself, there shouldn’t be an issue.
There are certain events throughout the world that arguably should be on any traveler’s to-do list. The Dragon Boat Festival, with its rich history, brilliant, colorful props, and eclectic atmosphere is certainly one of those events. If its adventure you are seeking, set against the backdrop of ancient custom and beautiful landscapes, then the Dragon Boat Festival is the perfect destination to meet your travel needs.
It's a relatively safe event - literally all we can say is know how to swim in case you fall into the drink! (Oh, and take it easy on the hsiung huang too...)
A good place to catch Duanwu Jié is the Mi Lo River in Húnán province, where Qu met his end. The southern province, surrounded by mountains and the Yangtze River, is an agricultural area where rice, tea and oranges are grown. WWF-protected Dongting Lake, the country’s second largest freshwater lake, is home to the rare silver fish and 200 bird species, including the Siberian crane and great bustard.
Head to China’s northern Hēilóngjiāng province in early January to mid February to see the International Ice and Snow Festival.
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