What is the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival? And How is it Celebrated in the US?

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Among the 56 ethnic groups in China, Han people are the predominant majority, accounting for 92% of the country’s total population. So the festivals they celebrate each year are mostly national holidays, and the Dragon Boat Festival, also called Duanwu Festival, is just one of them.

Dragon Boat Festival: One of Four Major Traditional Festivals in China

The Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on June 9 this year, is considered one of the four major traditional festivals of Han people. The other three are Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year), Qingming Festival (aka Tomb-Sweeping Day) and Mid-Autumn Festival.

To celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, which is on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional lunar calendar, China will have a threeday holiday this year, from June 9, Thursday through Saturday, June 11. People will resume work on Sunday, June 12 to make up for the day off on the previous Friday. Technically, the festival is only a one-day holiday, but it’s a common practice for the Chinese government to require people to work during a weekend in exchange for consecutive days off for a holiday.

Dragon Boat Festival Originates from a Legend of Chinese Ancient Poet Qu Yuan

19300000343744131242139954550_950Image Source: Foshan Expats

There are quite a few theories about the origin of the festival. Today, the most commonly accepted story is linked to the death of ancient famous poet and statesman Qu Yuan in 278 BC. It is generally believed that the festival is celebrated to commemorate Qu, a cadet member of the royal house of the Chu State during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty.

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 wrote a great deal of poetry. Many years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu 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’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo, reed or other large flat leaves). Such a story does make sense as racing in dragon boats and eating zongzi are the two major things that people do when celebrating the festival.

Boat Festival Elevated to National Holiday to Promote Traditional Culture

Believe it or not, it was only in recent years that the festival started to enjoy such a high-profile status. It was not even a public holiday until 2008 even though it has been part of the Chinese tradition for over 2,000 years. To promote and protect the Chinese traditional culture, the Chinese government designated the Dragon Boat Festival, Qingming Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival as public holidays in the same year. It is also believed that these holidays were added to the national calendar to boost domestic spending as people enjoy more time off from work.

Chinese in New York: Enjoy Easy Access to Zongzi for Dragon Boat Festival

SAM_5001Image Source: Images provided by the author

Just as people in Mainland China, overseas Chinese have also preserved many Chinese traditions, as is the case with the Dragon Boat Festival. In the United States, it won’t be difficult for you to find zongzi (Pictured Above) during the festival each year in such cities as New York City and Boston, where there are large Chinese communities.

As the festival is drawing near, many supermarkets in New York City’s Manhattan Chinatown are selling different kinds of zongzi, according to the local Chinese-language newspaper Qiao Bao. Not only are there zongzi made in styles of China’s Guangdong and Fujian cuisines, some of these stores also feature zongzi with Malaysian flavors, the newspaper says in its recent report entitled “NYC Chinatown Features Zongzi of Various Styles For Upcoming Dragon Boat Festival.” 

The zongzi being sold is a special kind with salted eggs. It originates from Jiaxing City in China’s southeastern Zhejiang Province. Zongzi is made differently in different areas of China. People in the north enjoy zongzi with dates, while people in the south prefer mixed ingredients, such as meat, sausages, and eggs. As the Chinese community in New York City is composed of people from different parts of China, those who love zongzi may be able to find almost all kinds of zongzi in the city, which has at least six other Chinatowns in addition to the original one in Manhattan.

Dragon Boat Racing is a Huge Event in Multiple U.S. Cities

As its name may indicate, in celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival, people can’t do without dragon boat racing. Actually, the boat racing has been a major part of the festival celebrations in many U.S. cities.

Boston Dragon Boat Race

MG_5439Image Source: Boston Magazine

The annual Boston Dragon Boat Race, inaugurated in 1979, is the first and oldest race for the festival in North America. It has grown from a small neighborhood event to the largest Chinese American cultural event in New England, drawing more than 20,000 participants and spectators annually. On June 11-12, people can enjoy New England’s summer weather by observing over 50 teams canoeing down Charles River.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Race in New York

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The second most famous dragon boat race in the United States just next to the Boston race is probably the one held in New York City. The race, which is called Hong Kong Dragon Boat Race in New York, is expected to host over 120 dragon boat teams from across North America. Although the Dragon Boat Festival falls on June 9 this year, the race will be held on August 6 and 7 in Flushing Meadows Park in the Borough of Queens. On the two days, in addition to the boat race, the festival celebration will feature other activities such as Chinese music and dancing performance, martial arts and lion dancing.

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival

2012race_yamamoto-0011135-1024x683Image Source: Colorado Dragon Boat festival

The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, slated to be held on July 30-31, has also gained more popularity in recent years. Established in 2001, the festival featuring boat races and other Chinese cultural events attracts more than 125,000 guests to this annual two-day event. The boat races will be held at Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver.

Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race

IMG_6286 (1)Image Source: Portland Community College

Just like the most renowned Boston Dragon Boat Race, the Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race will also be held on June 11-12 this year. Established in 1989, the race is an annual cultural event hosted by the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association. The event, which will take place on the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon, will feature about 80 dragon boat teams from all over the world.

San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival

san-francisco-international-dragon-boat-festival-san-francisco-caImage Source: Ever Fest

When talking about Chinese cultural events in the US, we should never forget about San Francisco as 21.4% of its population was of Chinese descent as of 2012. For its Dragon Boat Festival celebration, the city has always been proud to present the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival, which is scheduled to be held on Lake Merritt in Oakland on September 1718 this year. In addition to the competitive boat race, the festival will present such cultural events as the ribbon and fan dance, acrobatic show and martial arts performance, making it look like a full-blown carnival.

Across the United States, quite a few other cities also host annual dragon boat festival celebrations featuring boat races. They include Houston, Hartford, Miami and even such smaller cities as Olympia, Washington and Gainesville, Georgia. So the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival has taken root in the United States.

Still, there may be things missing at these celebrations in the United States compared to what people do for the festival in China. One of them is “xiong huang jiu,” or realgar wine, which many people drink during the festival in China. The wine, believed to have healthy effects, is hard to come by in the United States. But since we already have zongzi and dragon boat racing for the festival, we definitely can do without wine.

Now watch this video of Dragon Boat Races in Hong Kong:

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Hong Kong Dragon Boat Races香港仔龍舟競賽, June 20, 2015


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