The fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year signifies the Dragon Boat Festival throughout Asia.
The event, registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, varies in how it’s celebrated; but unsurprisingly, water, dragons, and boats are integral. Also key: the preparing and eating of sticky-rice balls wrapped or steamed in bamboo leaves, called zongzi in Mandarin. The treats can be savory (filled with meat, eggs, or mushrooms) or sweet (filled with red bean paste), or both. The varieties abound.
As for the origins of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, the important thing to know may be that we really know very little. “It’s fiction like Christmas, Santa Claus, and all things associated with it. People might know it’s connected to Pagan rituals. No one really knows the origins of any of these festivals to tell you the truth,” says Erica Brindley, Professor of Asian Studies, History and Philosophy at Penn State. "They probably go way back in time but the explanations are recent, say, the last 200 years.”
Whether or not the tradition is Chinese is even up for debate. Like so much of history in Asia, questions arise over who owns the culture. In 2005, South Korean moved to register its Danoje festival of the Korean town of Gangneung with UNESCO. The ritual, which also culminates on the fifth day of the fifth month, is a shamanistic ritual that pays homage to a mountain deity and folds in traditional folk songs, mask dance, poetry, and the brewing a special liquor. According to UNESCO, it balances a coexistence of Confucian, shamanistic, and Buddhist rituals.
The Korean action was met with indignation by the Chinese, who moved to register their own Dragon Boat Festival. Although the celebrations vary, it’s a tradition native to southern China, says Brindley. “It’s a watery area, it’s subtropical—think Florida and the Caribbean. It’s associated with water, swimming, and boats. Snakes, serpents, and dragons were really important.”
A key figure in many of the regional celebrations is Qu Yuan, a poet and statesman in the southern states in the court of Chu. Exiled by the emperor for warning of an invasion by the state of Qi, and proposing an alliance to head it off, he was later vindicated when the events transpired. After the emperor was captured, the poet drowned himself in 278 B.C.
Qu Yuan’s suicide is interpreted as loyalty to the state, and derivative of filial piety, a virtue revered in China, says Brindley. The zongzi are then sent into the water to feed his spirit.
In any case, Qu Yuan’s poetry continues to inspire awe in scholars today. “It’s fantastical and colorful and dealing with the spirit world. It’s very beautiful,” Brindley adds. “The festival is projecting these stories and linking them to tradition.”