Dragon Boat Festival in Taiwan

Dragon boat in Taiwan

Dragon Boat Festival is one of the three major holidays in Taiwan along with Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and as such it is a national holiday. It is also known as Duan Wu Jie in Chinese, and it falls on the 5th day of the 5th month according to the lunar calendar (usually in June). This year (2014) it is on June 2nd, which is a Monday, so all the more reason to celebrate (please check at your place of work to ensure it is a day off however)!

These days the holiday is most commonly associated with the story of Qu Yuan (see below) and the related dragon boat races (I say these days, but that story is still around 2500 years old), but it is believed that the origins of the festival are even more ancient.

Some of the customs involved in Dragon Boat Festival even today are based on driving away evil spirits and disease. It certainly seems as though Dragon Boat Festival signals the beginning of summer in Taiwan (as in the temperatures are noticeably hotter) as Mid-Autumn Festival signals cooler weather. And you certainly notice an increase in mosquitoes at this time of year, which would also signify an increased risk of disease in times past, and especially along waterways where they would have been more prevalent. This then is perhaps a link to the more modern interpretation of the festival.

So on to Qu Yuan. Legend has it that there lived a popular poet/minister called Qu Yuan in China around 300 BC. Despite his popularity, some bad eggs whispered unkind gossip into the emperor’s ear who foolishly believed the flibbertigibbets and henceforth banished Qu Yuan.

The poet was heartbroken, and after 20 years of exile and watching his beloved state falling apart, he became so distraught that he decided to take his own life. He tied a rock to himself and jumped into the Mi Luo river and drowned. He was still a popular figure, and local fishermen rowed out to try and save him, banging drums to scare the river spirit into returning him and throwing rice cakes into the river to prevent fish from eating his body.

Today this is remembered by the eating of rice cakes (or dumplings, or zong zi). Zong zi are glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in a bamboo leaf with various kinds of filling, commonly fatty pork, dried shrimp, mushrooms and egg yolk. This is definitely a time when people bring out their secret family recipe, and you will see them hanging up everywhere. They are a must try, and with a bit of sweet chilli sauce they are delicious. A word of warning though, don’t eat more than two in one sitting as they can take a bit of digesting! They are best steamed and rice cookers work well to reheat them.

Green tea, a zongzi (rice cake) and sachet

Green tea, a zongzi (rice cake) and a sweet smelling sachet.

But back to the races, and the dragon boat races themselves are thought to have originated to give the traditional rituals a more festive atmosphere, and then later became connected to Qu Yuan. Nowadays, this is what most people associate with the festival, and they can be seen all over the island (see a list of events below) and often attract teams from overseas. During each race, dragon boats race to reach a flag, and the first team to pluck the flag from the holder wins. It’s colourful and fun, and certainly worth watching.

In Taipei, the Hsintien River in Bitan is probably the most popular destination, and you can easily get there by MRT. The festival in Lukang is also very popular.

Other customs include carrying or wearing sachets (hsiang bao) containing herbs and spices, which were thought to ward off disease and evil spirits. Certainly some are known to be insect repellants, however these days they are most often filled with sweet smelling, stuff. The sachets are typically red and come in many designs such as flowers, birds and animals and are a favourite with children.

Another favourite activity for the kids is trying to balance an egg on its end at noon. The origins of this one are hard to come by, and basically it just seems to be a bit of fun (unless it’s to mock the bad eggs who whispered in the emperor’s ear). It is much harder than you think. Fetching well water at noon is also a good thing, so perhaps these two activities were a way of cooking the perfect boiled egg.

You may see calamus (water sword plant) and moxa (mugwort) hung around doors. As with the sachets, this was thought to ward off insects, but it doesn’t seem to be as common these days, at least in Taipei.

And finally, it was common to drink hsiung huang wine, which is rice wine infused with arsenic sulphide. As a pesticide, this is yet another way to keep pestilence at bay. Not surprisingly, children weren’t/aren’t allowed to get near this toxic concoction, and instead had the Chinese character “wang” or king painted on their foreheads with the mixture instead.

This is one of the most enjoyable festivals still actively practiced in Taiwan, and even though its getting hotter outside, I still recommend trying to get to one of the events listed below (if you know of any others please let us know).

(updated May 23rd, 6pm)

New Taipei CityInternational boat racing in Bitan – 2014 New Taipei City Speaker Cup. 6/1 (Sun) 8:00am to 16:00pm preliminary contest, 6/2 (Mon) the final races 9:30am to 15:20pm
Taipei CityTaipei International Dragon Boat Championship in Dajia Section, Keelung Riverside Park, Taipei City. 5/31 (Sat) – 6/2 (Mon) 9:00am to 5:00pm
Taoyuan: Boat racing in Longtan Pond, 5/31 (Sat) to 6/2 (Mon) 8:00am to 5:00pm
Ilan County: Boat racing in Dungshan River, 5/31-6/2 (a total of 3 days)  from 9:00am to 5:00pm
Hualien: Boat racing in Liyu (Carp) Lake. 5/31 (Sat) 9:00am to 16:45pm, 6/1 (Sun) 9:00am to 4:45pm, 6/2 (Mon) from 9:00am to 4:30pm
Taitung: Racing in Flowing Lake at Taitung Forest Park, 5/31-6/1 (a total of 2 days) men’s open and mixed open teams
Keelung: Boat racing in Patoutzu Fishing Port. 6/1 (Sun) 8:00am to 5:00pm for preliminary contest, 6/2 (Mon) 8:00am to 4:00pm
Miaoli: Boat racing in Sanyi West Lake, 6/2 only, 8:00am to 5:00pm
Miaoli Zhunan Township: Boat racing at Jhonggang River, 6/1 (Sun) 6/2 (Mon) 9:00am to 5:00pm
Hsinchu: Boat racing in Nan Liao Port, 6/2 only, 9:00am to 4:00pm
Changhua: International boat racing in Lukang Ji-An Channel, from now until 6/2 (Mon) 8:30am -5:30pm (English: http://www.eventaiwan.tw/cal_en/cal_20020 Chinese: http://2014lukangfestival.com.tw)
Tainan: International boat racing in Anping River (from Chengtian bridge to Anyi bridge), 5/29 (3:30pm -9:30pm), 5/30 (1:30pm-9:30pm), 5/31 (12:00pm-9:30pm), 6/1 (12:00pm-9:30pm), 6/2 (1:00pm -9:30pm)
Chiayi County: Boat racing in Dungshr-Budai Port, 5/31 Final race (8:00am to 5:00pm)
Kaohsiung: International boat racing in Lotus Lake (Love River boat racing cancelled this year), 5/25 (10:00am – 4:00pm), 5/31 (9:00am – 4:00pm), 6/1 (10:00am – 4:00pm)
Pingtung: Boat racing in Dunggang Port, 6/1 (10:00am to 6:00pm), 6/2 (8:30am to 5:00pm)
Penghu: Boat racing in Magong 3rd Fishing Port, 6/1 from 1:30pm for preliminary contest, 6/2 from 8:00am for the final race

* Please note these locations are applicable for 2014, and they may change from year to year.

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