Today is the annual Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Tuen Ng or Duanwu Festival, which is a traditional and statutory holiday in China, but is also celebrated throughout the Asian world. The festival now occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional lunar calendar, and so is sometimes called the Double Fifth Festival. The date varies from year to year in the Gregorian calendar. The celebration generally involves eating zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), drinking realgar wine (雄黃酒, xiónghuángjiǔ), and racing dragon boats. When I lived in Kunming there were no dragon boats, supposedly because there is not enough water there – even though a big river runs through the city and there are lakes all around. The fact is that in Kunming public holidays never feature public displays, which disappointed me. There were plenty of zongzi available, though.
The official Chinese name of the festival is 端午节 on the mainland and 端午節 in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao. This is pronounced variously in different Chinese dialects. In Mandarin, it is Romanized as Duānwǔjié on the mainland and Taiwan. In Cantonese, it is romanized as Tuen1 Ng5 Jit3 in Hong Kong and Tung1 Ng5 Jit3 in Macao. All of these names translate as “Opening the Seventh” and refer to its original position as the seventh-day (午日, Wǔrì) in the fifth month (五月, Wǔyuè) of the traditional Chinese calendar, which was also known as 午 (Wǔ). Both the People’s Republic and the Republic of China use “Dragon Boat Festival” as the official English translation of the holiday, while Hong Kong calls it the “Tuen Ng Festival” and Macao calls it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English and Festividade do Barco-Dragão in Portuguese.
The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. Qu was a cadet member of the Chu royal house and served in several high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.
It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body, hence the modern dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan’s body, so now we have zongzi.
In the former territory of the state of Wu, the festival commemorates Wu Zixu (died 484 BC). Wu Zixu was a loyal advisor whose advice was ignored by the king to the detriment of the kingdom. Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide by the king Fuchai, with his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month.
In southeast Jiangsu and much of Northeastern Zhejiang including the cities of Shaoxing, Ningbo and Zhoushan Dragon Boat Festival celebrates the memory of the young girl Cao E (曹娥,130–143 CE). Cao E’s father Cao Xu (曹盱) was a shaman who presided over local ceremonies at Shangyu. In 143, while presiding over a ceremony commemorating Wu Zixu during the Duanwu Festival, Cao Xu accidentally fell into the Shun River. Cao E, in an act of filial piety, decided to find her father in the river, searching for 3 days trying to find him. After five days, she and her father were both found dead in the river from drowning. Eight years later, in 151, a temple was built in Shangyu dedicated to the memory of Cao E and her sacrifice for filial piety. The Shun River was renamed Cao’e River in her honor.
Modern research suggests that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed on to a pre-existing summer dragon holiday tradition perhaps associated with the winter rice harvest. The promotion of these stories might have been encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence in China. No one really knows. It just goes to show that the Chinese are as prone to bogus theories about the origins of their festivals as Europeans are about theirs. Everyone knows the stories, but no one really cares. People like to have a day off and eat sticky rice. Boat races are a bonus.
The festival was long marked as a cultural festival in China. The People’s Republic of China government established in 1949, however, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005 the government began to recognize certain traditional holidays, including Duanwu, loosening the tight anti-traditional restrictions of the Maoist era. Since 2008, Duanwu has been celebrated not only as a festival but also as a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China. It is unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of southeast Asia, including in Singapore and Malaysia, and equivalent and related official festivals can be found in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Three of the most widespread activities conducted during the Duanwu Festival are eating (and preparing) zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats. Other common activities include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, and wearing perfumed medicine bags. Other traditional activities include a game of trying to making an egg stand on end exactly at noon (to receive luck for the coming year), and writing spells.
I gave a recipe for sticky rice here. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/siamese-revolution-1932/. From the images presented here you can get an idea of zongzi, although there are many variations. If you are ambitious you can make them yourself and here is an excellent video.
I used to buy them, wrapped but not cooked, from markets in Kunming where they are plentiful around Dragon Boat Festival. I then boiled them at home. Zongzi vary all the way from plain cooked sticky rice, to rice stuffed with bean paste, or meat, or complex combinations.