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The Dragon Boat Festival: How to Celebrate It

The “Dragon Boat Festival” is an important Chinese holiday passed down for generations because of its cultural relevance related to the roots of Chinese folk tradition. According to the Chinese calendar rules, it occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. If we consider the Gregorian Calendar, the exact day of the holiday might fall between late May and early June. In 2024, the Dragon Boat Festival will be celebrated on Monday the 10th of June.

Origins of the Festival

This holiday was instituted in honour of Qu Yuan, for it commemorates his person as a cherished prime minister of the southern Chinese state of Chu during the period of the “Warring States”, between 600 BC and 200 BC. During the festivity, it is customary to hold dragon boat races and to eat rice dumplings called zongzi which were usually found in the cuisine of the southern Chinese tradition. The legend associated with the figure of Qu Yuan is that the famous poet and minister who lived during the Zhao Dynasty had been exiled after firmly opposing an alliance with the Qin state desired by the King of Chu. However, when the state of Chu was betrayed by Qin, Qu Yuan, in despair, drowned himself in the Miluo River.

Many retellings of the story have added, through the years, several details which tried to clarify why the typical holiday activities were taking place, adding that some local men had rushed to rescue Qu Yuan using their boats and, failing to find him, had then thrown rice balls into the sea to prevent fishes from eating his body. From that day on, the prime minister of the state of Chu became a figure of patriotism.

Dragon Boat Festival 2
A painting of the Chinese Dragon Boat Race by Wang Zhenpeng (1275 – 1330).

Stories Always Have Different Facets

There are other legends linked with the festival. One, for example, states that the festival is a commemoration of Wu Zixu, a statesman of the kingdom of Wu believed to be the hero who died slaying a dragon in the province of Guizhou.

What could connect the holiday with the idea of “dragons” is the deep relationship of the story with the belief that the fifth month of the lunar calendar was, indeed, an unlucky one. It was referred to as the “month of poison” because, during the first hot days of summer, people tended to fall ill and many epidemics started to spread. It was believed that evil spirits would start to emerge, thus ancient Chinese people usually threw dragon-shaped totems in the water or put wormwood on their doors to ward off evil spirits.

One way or another, the holiday is equally celebrated throughout all of China. In 2008, indeed, the Dragon Boat Festival was made a public holiday and, thus, it has become known all around the world. Then in 2009 UNESCO officially approved the inclusion of this festivity in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, making it the first Chinese holiday to be selected.

A Peculiar Name

All over the world, the festival is known as the “Dragon Boat”. This is, indeed, the English name for the holiday and it is used as the official English translation by the People’s Republic of China. Some English sources refer to the festivity as the “Double Fifth Festival” which alludes to the day and the month of the Chinese calendar in which it is celebrated.

The Chinese name is slightly different. In simplified Chinese, it is known as “端午节” (pinyin: Duānwǔ jié). Duānwǔ means “starting horse”, which refers to the “first horse day” of the month according to the Chinese zodiac. However, by homonymy, the character has been associated with  (五 ‘five’). Because of the same pronunciation, the festival became Duānwǔ “the fifth day of the fifth month”.

Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon Boat Festival Names. Photo: Long Advisory.

Symbolism and Activities

There are different kinds of symbols and activities connected with the Dragon Boat Festival. Everything is taken care of down to the last detail to give participants the best possible experience.

The dragon boats: watch or participate in the race

When you think of the Dragon Boat Festival it is impossible not to link it with a boat race. A dragon boat is a traditional human-powered or paddle-powered vessel typically constructed from teak wood in a variety of sizes and designs. These boats are often adorned with vibrant decorations and can range from 40 to 100 feet in length, featuring a dragon-shaped front and a scaly tail at the back. Depending on the boat’s size, it can accommodate up to 80 rowers. Before each race, a ceremonial ritual is conducted to symbolically bring the boat to life by painting its eyes.

The race is won by the team that successfully retrieves a flag after the course. The dragon boat race is the most important activity during the Dragon Boat Festival. This tradition stems from the historical legend of individuals embarking on a boat to search for Qu Yuan’s body. It is believed that the victors of the dragon boat race will be blessed with good fortune and prosperity in the forthcoming year.

Eating zongzi, the sticky rice dumplings

The legend states that locals started to throw rice balls into the water in order to prevent fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. Thus, nowadays there is a tradition of making zongzi to afterwards exchange them with friends and family. But in the last few years, many restaurants and bakeries have made it a habit to prepare zongzi to be sold later to all those who wish to celebrate the holiday and actively participate in the event. The rice balls can be filled with savoury or sweet flavours. The most appreciated fillings are eggs, beans, dates, fruits, sweet potato, walnuts, mushrooms, meat, or even a combination of them. Once the fillings are added the zongzi is shaped into a pyramid and it is ready to be served.

Dragon Boat Festival zongzi
Zongzi are usually consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival.

The realgar wine

In the past, folk beliefs ensured that realgar wine could be consumed as an antidote against poison. In addition, it was possible to use it to kill insects and keep evil spirits away. Hence, during the Dragon Boat Festival, it is customary to drink it. Realgar wine is an alcoholic beverage made primarily of yellow wine and realgar powder. It is also used to write the word “king” on children’s foreheads.

Dragon Boat Festival Realgar wine
Realgar wine is regularly drunk during the Dragon Boat Festival as a symbol of good omen. Photo: Long Advisory.

Hanging mugwort and calamus outside the house

In traditional Chinese medicine, mugwort leaves are utilized for their medicinal properties in combating various illnesses. Additionally, the pleasant fragrance of mugwort leaves acts as a natural repellent for insects such as flies and mosquitoes, making them a popular choice for hanging outside residences.

Never forget to wear five colours

As the Dragon Boat Festival takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month it is customary to wear silk or braided ribbons in a variety of five colours to commemorate this occasion, because of the great importance of the number five.

How Can Brands Use the Opportunity to Expand Their Influence

Given the global importance of this occasion, as the holiday is celebrated in more than 50 nations, brands need to understand how to make the most of the occasion to expand their influence in China. The mainland has, indeed, emerged as a strong economic force and a key market for numerous global brands. It has become a favoured destination for sourcing and selling goods, drawing the interest of upcoming businesses in search of reliable suppliers and clientele.

The Power of 618 Shopping Festival by Long Advisory

First and foremost, brands should understand how important this festivity is for all Chinese people. Thus they must take into account 3 main factors:

  • During the festive season, it is important to note that there may be absences among employees.
  • Additionally, please be aware that our business partners and clients may have limited availability during the holiday period.
  • As a result, there may be delays or disruptions in quoting, shipping, production, and procurement, amounting to approximately 2 to 3 days of lost time.

In addition to that, brands could use partnerships with influencers, actors or VIPs in general to promote their new products designed specifically to celebrate and commemorate the festivity of the Dragon Boat Festival. They could hold promotional activities and events linked with the general idea of the festival as a way of sponsoring themselves in the Mainland. They have to comprehend how important this holiday is and how consumers and customers could be more willing to buy products that glorify their traditions and culture.

Remember the importance of social and e-commerce platforms

Social media platforms like Weibo, Little Red Book or WeChat are always the best way to boost products and to reach the largest amount of users interested in the festivity of the Dragon Boat Festival and Chinese traditions in general. Also utilizing e-commerce platforms to sell related products to the holiday could be optimal.

Long Advisory digital marketing agency in China

Long Advisory supports Western companies in China through digital marketing. In fact, our experience has led us to believe that today, the best and most convenient approach to making your brand well-known in China is through a digital approach. Furthermore, thanks to our know-how, we know how to make your brand known to potential Chinese consumers. With the effective coordination of Long Advisory, your company will see a new rise in the largest market in the world: China.

Long Advisory is a digital marketing agency specializing in developing digital marketing solutions tailored for the Chinese market. 

Interested in expanding your brand in China? Contact us for more info and details at info@longadvisory.eu

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