Shengliver’s Note: This entry was written for the festival in 2008. It has been quoted a lot by my epals since then. I have revised it and made a couple of changes. Here it is for my readers. Also, the Chinese teens whom I have been working with for the past three years will complete high school after they sit the National Matriculation Test on June 8. I’d like to wish them a nice holiday. Have a good rest and get prepared for college, boys and girls.




Duanwu is a traditional Chinese festival. Its English name is the Dragon Boat Festival. The Chinese name duan (first) wu (five) literally means the fifth day of a month. The festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, it is observed either in late May or in early June. The exact date of the festival in the Gregorian calendar varies from year to year. Duanwu is a national holiday in China.



 qu yuan

It is popularly believed that the Dragon Boat Festival is marked in memory of Qu Yuan. Mr Qu (343?-315? BC) was a poet who lived in the Kingdom of Chu during the Warring States Period.


Mr Qu was an official of the court of his kingdom, Chu. During that period of Chinese history, China was not a unified nation. On the land there were a number of kingdoms. Chu, located in the south central part of the land, was supposed to be the largest in area; Qin, located in what is Shaanxi today, the most powerful of the kingdoms.


The King of Chu would choose to make peace with its northern neighbour. Qin, however, was keen to invade Chu and annex it. The King of Qin coveted all the other kingdoms on the land. Mr Qu Yuan was aware of Qin’s ambitions and he advised his king to take precautions against the northern neighbour. But the King of Chu was surrounded by those courtiers who were jealousy of Mr Qu’s talent and great learning. They persuaded the King of Chu to follow the opposite course. And Mr Qu, an honest and patriotic official, was banished from court and sent off to remote areas of his kingdom to the south of the Yangtze River.


His country fell into decline day by day, and yet Mr Qu Yuan could not do anything. He was in anguish. His sorrow prompted him to create the great poem, Li Sao. Li Sao is widely acknowledged as the first Chinese poem of romanticism. In the poem, the poet wrote in the first person, a practice that had never been found among the Chinese poems written before Li Sao.


In grief and agony, Mr Qu Yuan drowned himself in a river called Miluojiang, which is still found in today’s northeast Hunan Province.



 boat race 03

On the festival, in south and central China, Dragon Boat races are held on a river or a lake. The races are related to the drowning of the poet.


Legend goes that when the local people heard of Mr Qu’s drowning, they rushed out by boat in order to rescue him from the river. Today’s races are reminiscent of all the boats dashing across the water to where Mr Qu was drowning on the fifth day of the fifth month over 2,000 years ago.




A special food goes with a Chinese festival. Zongzi is to the Dragon Boat Festival what mooncakes are to Mid-autumn Day.


Zongzi is made of sticky and glutinous rice. People use this rice commonly for making rice wine. In ancient China, the Chinese people took advantage of its stickiness and used it in construction. It was mixed with sand and other building material to cement bricks and stones. In my hometown, a dike along the river Danjiang is thought to have been built this way and the dike still works well.


This rice is soaked overnight before it is wrapped in some leaves, like bamboo leaves. In my hometown, folks use the leaf of a tree called wutong as the wrapping. Whatever wrapping is used, the leaf lends some of its flavour to the rice.

 wutong 02

The wrapped zongzi in the shape of a pyramid or a triangle is cooked by boiling or steaming. It takes quite a while to have it well done.


Also garlic bulbs are boiled with zongzi. Most people eat zongzi with garlic cloves. Sticky rice is hard to digest and garlic helps digestion by stimulating the stomach to move more and faster.


People with stomach complaints should be wary of zongzi. It is hard to digest. garlic 01


In Hubei and Hunan, people drop zongzi into rivers and lakes on the day. This practice is related to the death of Mr Qu Yuan, too. After Mr Qu died, people put the food in the river in the hope that the fish would eat the rice and stay away from the man’s body and thus his body would be left intact. Mr Qu’s body is no longer there but the food is thrown into rivers and lakes year after year to show respect for him.




Duanwu would be no Duanwu without a herb called aihao in Chinese. Its English name is mugwort.


People get up early on the festival to go and collect this herb in the country. It is placed at the door and hung about the windows. The herb is thought to be able to ward off disease and pests.


Actually aihao is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and in home remedies for common complaints like skin trouble, coughing or digestive disorders.


I like the smell of the plant. It smells a bit bitter but it refreshes me. And I used to mix this herb up with the chrysanthemum. The two herbs look very much alike and both have a bitterish fragrance.




The festival happens to be a time of harvest in many parts of China. In my hometown, in most years, the festival is when the farmers are busy harvesting their wheat and planting rice seedlings in paddy fields.


That’s the reason why I have no happy memories of the festival. My father and mother were not interested in cooking zongzi. As far as I can remember, my younger brother and I complained to our parents about not eating the food on the festival. Some neighbours prepared the food and it aroused our craving for it. One year stood out in my memory. Nagged by my brother and me, my parents cooked some porridge using sticky rice. The porridge was served with sugar. But it did not satisfy us kids. It was not zongzi, after all.

 reap wheat 03

One year my parents finally cooked the food and treated us to it. We kids tasted it. However, we came to a conclusion that zongzi was just so so and that pork was tastier.


I think my parents’ dislike of the food has something to do with the fact that the family has its very origins in north China. I chatted with some elderly folk in my village. They all believed that the whole village was started up by four brothers, who migrated here from north China probably in the Ming Dynasty.


One festival, also in the harvest season, I was home with my parents. There was no zongzi for us in the kitchen. Instead there was hard labour on the farm. My brother and I were woken up by our parents very early in the morning around 5. We had to go and help the parents in the fields. It was so early in the morning that I felt chilly and had to wear a coat. But as the day progressed, the temperature rose sharply. Later on, when the sun was up and high, we had to remove the coat and put on a shirt. All the sweating in the sun! The memory of the early rising, the coldness, the fresh air and the bird calls is as fresh as if it had happened only yesterday.


This year’s festival happens to be a Sunday. But I will have to be working for the National Matriculation Test on the day. I will invigilate this big exam at my school.


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