Culture\Events and Festivals

Celebrating a heroic death with rice, lights and 'phoenix tails'

By Cang Wei and Zhou Lihua | China Daily | Updated: 2017-05-30 07:49

The home of dragon boat racing marks the festival in a unique fashion, as Cang Wei reports from Nanjing, with Zhou Lihua in Wuhan

The people of Miluo, Hunan province, known as the home of dragon boat racing and the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrate the event in a unique way.

Liu Shilin, former curator of the Qu Yuan Memorial Hall in the city, said many locals rise early and walk along the banks of the Miluo River, deliberately soaking their shoes with morning dew, in memory of Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who drowned himself in the river on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar, when ancient Chu State was occupied by enemies in 278 BC.

"During the festival, people also take water from the river to fill their water tanks at home," said the 75-year-old, who has been dubbed "a walking dictionary of Duanwu" (an alternative name for the festival) by the locals. "They believe that drinking or bathing in the water will protect them from illness."

Celebrating a heroic death with rice, lights and 'phoenix tails'

All over China, people hang calamus and wormwood leaves on their doors and windows to dispel evil spirits and call for blessings from the dead poet.

In Miluo, husbands and wives visit their parents on the day of the festival. Many years ago, people made zongzi, balls of sticky rice, as gifts for their parents, but now they buy zongzi and other presents from supermarkets and restaurants.

"People give zongzi, which are usually made from sticky rice and jujube (Chinese dates), to their neighbors and relatives, who in return visit and bring presents," Liu said.

"It's a good way for neighbors and relatives to maintain good relationships."

Liu remembers his childhood, when seniors threw zongzi into the river and loudly intoned "Come back, Master Qu", in memory of a legend that told how Qu's body could not be found, so local people dropped balls of sticky rice into river so that the fish would eat them, rather than Qu's body.

"The younger generation no longer follows this tradition," he said.

Despite the changes, dragon boat racing remains one of the most popular holiday activities in Miluo, and the locals gather spontaneously to visit the temple of Qu Yuan before the races start.

People form teams according to their surnames or home villages, and different teams dress in their own colors when they visit the temple. They sacrifice dragon heads, which are usually made of wood, to the poet, together with offerings of zongzi, salted duck eggs and other items.

When the ceremonies are over, the dragon heads are tied onto the boats so they "participate" in the races.

While one end of the boat is festooned with dragon heads, the other is usually adorned with "phoenix tails", made from bamboo branches that have been soaked in a red dye and decorated with yellow and green silk ribbons, making them glitter in the sunlight.

The boats are of different sizes, with some of the larger ones capable of holding more than 50 people. When two boats are close to the start line, the crew of one boat usually challenges the other, asking "Want a boat race?" The competition begins when the other boat responds positively.

Celebrating a heroic death with rice, lights and 'phoenix tails'

Most of the competitors are young men. They beat drums and row hard until one team admits defeat. Winning a race is considered a great honor, and sometimes the crews come to blows. Unlike most places in China, the people of Zigui county in Hubei also hold races on the 15th day of fifth month of the Lunar calendar, which falls 10 days after the Dragon Boat Festival.

After May 15, the boats are cleaned and hung on the walls of ancestral temples, while the dragon heads are carefully stored at people's home. Those appointed to take care of the dragon heads are required to make offerings to them on the first and 15th days of each lunar month. They believe that by following this tradition, the dragon heads will retain their power and spirit.

Liu believes dragon boats should not be uniform, but should be of different sizes and carry unique decorations

"Most of the dragon boats used in the races nowadays are of similar size, which is regulated by the government," he said. "Though that helps to make the races competitive, some interesting features of traditional dragon boat racing have been lost."

The city of Miluo has hosted an international dragon boat festival every year since 2005, when boats from China and further afield participate in competitions and communicate with each other.

Yan Shi, secretary-general of the Nanjing Dragon Boat Association in the eastern province of Jiangsu, said seven dragon boat competitions are held in China every year, usually during the Duanwu and Mid-Autumn festivals.

"The races are loved by both Chinese people and foreigners," Yan said. "In Jiangsu province, 12-year-old children and seniors age 70 and older join our association and races.

"Many middle schools and colleges have established their own dragon boat teams, and they hire professional coaches to train them. It's a good way of developing team spirit and providing exercise."

To better preserve and protect the festival's traditions, Miluo has established a research institute and cultural parks. One of the newest, Qu Zi (Qu Yuan's honorific title) Cultural Park, will open in time for this year's festival.

Liu Kun and Feng Zhiwei contributed to this story.

Contact the writers at

 Celebrating a heroic death with rice, lights and 'phoenix tails'

Competitors race in Zigui county, Hubei province, to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival on June 10 last year. Lin Mu / For China Daily

(China Daily 05/30/2017 page1)

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