This year’s Dragon Boat Festival was supposed to be on June 14, 2021, which is also the fifth day of the fifth month in the traditional lunar calendar, and a very special day in Taiwan. However, this year COVID-19 has changed that, but we can still share the traditions that make the foundation of this glorious Festival. Hopefully the dragon boat race will take place in October, but the date is still to be determined.
Most commonly known as Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwujie 端午節), along with Moon Festival, and Lunar New Year, it is one of the three most important festivals celebrated on the island. Dragon Boat Festival is a public holiday and an occasion for Taiwanese to travel and gather with family and loved ones. Boasting an over 2,000-year history, this fun-filled celebration is marked by a number of long-standing traditions, special food, and a very unique sporting event.
Dragon Boat Festival is sometimes also called Double Fifth Festival because it is observed on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. This is a time of year once considered unlucky and unhealthy, because as the mild days of Spring give way to the heat and humidity of Summer, snakes, centipedes, scorpions, and other creepy crawlies start to emerge, and diseases spread more easily. To ward off these unwelcome guests, branches of the fragrant herbs calamus and wormwood (moxa) are hung above the front door of Taiwanese homes.
Stay safe with fragrant herbs
To keep you protected when you are out and about, you can wear a xiang bao (香包). These perfumed sachets are traditionally created from cloth, ribbons, or paper and filled with sweet-smelling herbs and powders, then worn around the neck or elsewhere on the body. Historically the older generation would make them for the younger generation to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Today anyone is welcome to wear a xiang bao.
Brave adults can also try xionghuang jiu (雄黃酒) or Realgar Wine. Realgar, a yellowy-orange arsenic sulphide powder, was used in the past as a snake and insect repellent, and was also considered to be an antidote to all poisons. It is mixed with huang jiu (黃酒 yellow wine) to create an alcoholic drink believed to provide protection against pests, illness, and evil spirits when consumed, or sprinkled around the home. Today you can safely enjoy commercially prepared Realgar Wine, and use it to mark the foreheads of your children with the character 王 (king) to safely protect them as well.
After you have driven away the evil spirits, Taiwanese tradition says that you can invite good luck and harmony for an entire year by balancing an egg on its end at exactly noon on Double Fifth day. Patience and a peaceful mind are the key to success in this endeavor, and if you find you are good at it, there are often egg-standing contests at temples and department stores throughout Taiwan.
The change in seasons is not the only event recognized during this holiday, however. There are several origin stories in circulation, but Dragon Boat Festival is also known as Poet’s Day because, as probably the most popular legend, tells it, the festival commemorates the death of the poet and government official Qu Yuan (屈原) in 221 BCE.
Although he was a loyal and patriotic man, Qu Yuan was banished from his home country by the King of Chu for political reasons. During his time in exile, Qu Yuan created a new style of poetry and composed many works in this style expressing his love, and enduring concerns for the future of his state. His devotion to the Kingdom of Chu ran so deep, that upon hearing that it had been overtaken by a rival Warring State, Qu Yuan threw himself into a river and drowned. Local fishermen and villagers Revered Qu Yuan for his resolute patriotism and rushed out in their boats to try and save him. When his body could not be found, they beat drums to scare off any fish, and placed rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves in the water to feed them, in the hope of preventing them from eating Qu Yuan’s body.
Elements of this legend live on in the traditions used to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival in Taiwan today.
What to eat
The sticky rice used to feed the fish is represented in 粽子, zongzi. Zongzi is made from glutinous rice and a combination of ingredients such as pork, mushrooms, salted duck egg yolks, seafood, peanuts, and walnuts, wrapped in bamboo leaves. The triangular packets are, then steamed. Whether they are made together by the whole family or purchased on the street, almost everyone eats zongzi during Dragon Boat Festival.
The race to try and save Qu Yuan is recreated in the most exciting part of the Dragon Boat Festival. Dragon Boats are a kind of canoe that varies in size from 40-100 feet in length, but all of them feature heads and tails shaped like dragons and are brightly painted. Before the race, each boat is “brought to life” in a formal eye-dotting ceremony, where red paint is dabbed in the pupils of the dragon’s eyes. Each boat is crewed by a team of rowers and a flag catcher, as well as a drummer who keeps time for the rowers and brings to mind the fishermen trying to scare away the fish from Qu Yuan’s body. Boats race against each other, and the winner is the first team to capture the flag at the end of the course.
Dragon Boat races are held locally all around the island. The earliest Dragon Boat races in Taipei can be traced back to 1895 when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. They continued in various forms over the years, and since 1996, Taipei City has hosted the Taipei International Dragon Boat Championships. Held at Dajia Riverside Park on the Keelung River near the Dazhi Bridge, the races have attracted teams of paddlers from all over the world, and huge crowds to cheer them on and enjoy festival-related activities and performances. The global Covid-19 pandemic saw the 2020 Dragon Boat Festival dramatically scaled back with most events that were not canceled allowing virtual viewing only. This year’s Dragon Boat Festival has been canceled.
The place to go see the Dragon Boat Races is Dajia Riverside Park, more specifically the Dajia section of the Keelung River. The International Dragon Boat Championship has been held here since 1996, and the races draw large crowds of spectators. In the midst of a very festive atmosphere, the contestants set off on their races from Dragon Boat Pier (Dazhi Bridge).
The Dragon Boats
The name of the game. The rowers, who are actually paddling, propel the boat to the beat of the drummer, and the flag catcher leans far across the bow of the boat to grab a flag. The winning team is the first boat to capture the flag at the end of their lane.
The Dragon boat:
- It is a canoe ranging from 40-100 feet in length and colorfully decorated like dragons.
- The front of the boat is carved as a dragon head
- The body of the boat is painted to look like dragon’s scales, holds 20 rowers in 10 rows
- The stern of the boat is a dragon’s tail.
- The drummer sets the pace of the rowers, which is believed to drum the heart rhythm of the dragon.
- A traditional eye-dotting ceremony will give life to the boat before the race.
Traditions to Ensure Good Karma at the Dragon Boat Festival
To ensure a good Dragon Boat Festival, a ceremony invoking the deities, eye-dotting, and river blessing is held at the Qu Yuan Temple of Zhoumei village — the only temple in Taiwan that worships Qu Yuan as its main deity. Representatives from Taipei city, the Taipei City Government Department of Sports, and the dragon boat competition representative teams and guests join in the worship ceremony. Following ancient rituals, they pray to the deities for the successful and safe completion of this year’s Taipei Dragon Boat Championships.
This ceremony is held in accordance with ancient Taoist rituals. A blessing ceremony will normally involve dragon and lion dance, traditional drums, and a figurine of Santaizi, the Taiwanese god of protection. Participating teams of all ages are invited to join in the festivities, and the gathering of teams from different backgrounds and generations symbolizes the shared guardianship and heritage of traditional dragon boat culture. At the same time, the competitors also paint and wear statement headbands symbolizing “fighting for each other” to demonstrate Taipei’s vitality and combat capability.
After the ceremony, the participants go to the appointed dragon boat eye-dotting venue to perform the eye-dotting, whereafter the boats are lowered into the water for the river blessing ceremony.
Representatives of these boats finally row the dragon boats from the venue to Dajia Dragon Boat Wharf, ready to participate in the 2021 Taipei Dragon Boat Championships.
The Tale of the Eye-dotting
This tale created the Chinese idiom, “Paint the dragon, dot the eyes.” Zhang, a devoted Buddhist, was commissioned to paint four dragons on a wall. Zhang conscientiously worked on his masterpiece, and his progress was admired by spectators. However, these spectators noticed that Zhang had missed out the dragon eyes on all the dragons and questioned whether he had finished his masterpiece. Zhang explained that this was done on purpose, saying: “The eyes are the spirit of the dragon, and the other parts are just the form. Once the eyes are added, the form will come to life and fly away.”
The spectators thought it was a tad farfetched to believe the painting would come to life and said as much. So, with four dabs of his ink brush, Zhang dotted the dragon’s eyes and gave pupils to two of the dragons. At that moment a light struck the wall where the dragons were painted, and the two dragons flew off the wall and disappeared into the sky above. Therefore he decided that the other two pupilless dragons should remain as paintings on the wall.
The Chinese idiom, “paint the dragon, dot the eyes” (畫龍點睛, huà lóng diǎn jīng) is derived from the tale of Zhang. It means adding the finishing touches to something already very good and achieving perfection. The tradition of eye-dotting dragon boats arose as a way to symbolically give the dragon spirit to win the race.