Archive for the ‘Dragon Boat Festival’ Category

Dragon Boats from Antiquity

The Dragon Boat Festival is the biggest event of the summer. On the fifth day of the fifth moon (generally falling between May 28 and June 28), the summer season becomes official. Ancestors and gods must be honored, lest they lose their tempers during the dog days to come. The big event is the dragon boat race. Teams race against one another in long sculls decorated with a dragon’s head on the bow.

The story of this festival concerns a famous scholar-statesman named Chu Yuan (屈原), who served the King of Chu (楚) in the time of the warring states (戰國時代, 403-221 B.C.) He incurred the displeasure of the king and was exiled. Chu Yuan lived the life of a hermit and became an excellent poet. But on the fifth day of the fifth month, he became so frustrated that he threw himself into the Milo River (汨羅江) in Hunan province (湖南省). Knowing him as an upright and honest man, the people rushed to the river to save him. All vied to get there first, and the dragon boat races commemorate this attempt.

Unfortunately, it was too late and Chu Yuan drowned. But the peasants threw cooked rice into the water to comfort his spirit. Later, they wrapped the rice in bamboo leaves. This started another custom. On the fifth day of the fifth moon, rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves are a favored food.

Dragon Boat Festival time is not the housewife’s delight. The house must be thoroughly cleaned. Realgar is used to disinfect the premises and a pinch of it goes into the festival food as an extra precaution. Air is sweetened with aromatic herbs to please the spirits and keep them in a friendly mood.

Poison Month

The fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar marks the beginning of the hot weather in Taiwan. It’s also the time when the heat brings the threat of disease. So, on the first day of summer, the people used to go out into the country to gather a variety of herbs believed to have cooling protective properties. These were brewed into a fragrant soup. But the soup wasn’t made for drinking. Instead, it was used for bathing in the hopes of aiding the body’s defenses against the merciless heat.

In a similar custom, people would draw water from their wells precisely at noon on the day of the Dragon Boat holiday. This water was stored in an earthenware jug in a dark corner where it was supposed to acquire special curative powers. The noon waters (午時水) from Taichung’s Tieh Chan Mountain (鐵砧山) were believed to be especially potent in warding off summer plagues.



Five Poisons

According to Chinese tradition, there are five poisonous animals: the snake, the lizard, the scorpion, the centipede, and the toad. These five creatures are believed to be especially menacing beginning on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the date of the Dragon Boat Festival. It is also believed that when they appear together in a group they don’t dare contend with each other and their poisonous effects are thereby canceled out. So, on the Dragon Boat Holiday, special clothe pouches emblazoned with the five poisonous creatures are given to the children as lucky protective charms; and red paper cutouts featuring these beasts are posted on the windows to ward away evil.

In the past, Chinese medicine shops used to offer a special prescription for summertime coughs and rheumatism made from centipedes, scorpions, snakes, and other poisonous insects mixed with wine. Remnants of this tradition can be found in the snake meat shops found in Taipei Wanhua district and other parts of the island.

Xiung Huang Wine

Xiung huang (雄黃) is a rust-colored sulfur powder which is mixed with wine and drunk during the Dragon Boat Festival. The tradition of drinking this medicinal concoction may be derived from its mention in the famous Chinese folk tale, The Legend of White Snake (白蛇傳). It is taken along with green bean cakes in the hopes of flushing germs and poisons out of the body. But if someone offers you a bowl of this muddy cocktail, be careful not to drink too much. The xiung huang compound contains traces of arsenic and it can only be taken in very small portions. In the past, people used to sprinkle leftover xiung huang wine in the corners under the bed to kill off the bugs.

In addition to drinking the red colored xiung huang wine, it used to be customary to make offerings of red colored foods during the Dragon Boat Festival. Red is the color of luck and foods like shrimp, red peppers, carrots and radishes were commonly placed on the sacrifice table to obtain blessings from the ancestors and spirits.

Rush Sword

Rush sword (菖蒲) is a special ornament made for the Dragon Boat Festival. The Chinese call the fifth month of the year “poison month” and the fifth through 14th days of the month are believed to be the most dangerous. On the first of these days, the day of the dragon boat holiday, a special bouquet made of rushes and sprigs is hung up over the door. Roughly shaped like a sword, the bouquet is believed to have the power to ward off flying gruesome ghosts out to spread sickness and ill will.

Over the years, the custom of hanging charms over the door during the Dragon Boat Holiday has expanded. In addition to the usual bouquet of rush, moxa, and calamus, banyan branches may also be used because the banyan is the Buddhist tree of enlightenment. And if you look carefully, you might find garlic or pomegranate blossoms hanging over your head.