The Dragon Boat is a traditional and statutory holiday originating in China.
The festival now occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional lunar calendar, the source of its alternative name, the Double Fifth Festival. The Chinese calendar is lunisolar, so the date varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar. In 2012, it fell on June 23; in 2013, on June 12; and in 2014, it occurs on June 2.
The focus of most celebrations involves eating zongzi (sticky rice treats wrapped in bamboo leaves), drinking realgar wine (a Chinese alcoholic drink that consists of yellow wine dosed with an arsenic sulfide), and racing dragon boats.
The sun is considered to be at its strongest around the time of summer solstice, as the daylight in the northern hemisphere is the longest. The sun, like the Chinese dragon, traditionally represents masculine energy, whereas the moon, like the phoenix, traditionally represents feminine energy. The summer solstice is considered the annual peak of male energy while the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, represents the annual peak of feminine energy. The masculine image of the dragon was thus naturally associated with Duanwu.
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. A cadet member of the Chu royal house, Qu served in 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. This is said to have been the origin of 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. This is said to be the origin of zongzi.
The festival was long marked as a festival culturally in China and is a public holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. However, the People’s Republic of China government, established in 1949, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005, the government began to plan for the re-recognition of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. Since 2008, Duanwu has been celebrated not only as a festival but also a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China. It is unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of southeast Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia. Equivalent and related official festivals include Children’s Day in Japan, Dano in Korea, and Tết Đoan Ngọ in Vietnam.
The holiday is commemorated in a solo piano work, “Dragon Boat Festival” 1996), by Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao.