The Dragon Boat Festival, which is being celebrated today, features an array of activities such as dragon boat races, eating zongzi (粽子) and making “fragrant sachets,” but the traditional festival — one of the most important holidays of the lunar calendar — seems to have lost some of its cultural meaning, according to a local folklorist.
While China incorporated the Dragon Boat Festival among its national holidays last year as a measure to protect and promote Chinese tradition, in Taiwan, although the festival has been a national holiday for many years, it seems to have been simplified to an occasion for eating zongzi and racing dragon boats, according to Yuan Chang-rue, a folklorist and professor at the Graduate School of Folk Culture and Arts of the Taipei National University of the Arts.
“These days, the Dragon Boat Festival’s emblematic meaning has already superseded its practical functions,” Yuan said, adding that originally, the festival had been a means of reminding the public about the importance of health care.
In ancient times, the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated in early summer, reminded people that the “poison season” of May, June and July was beginning, and with it the emergence of all kinds of stinging and biting insects, Yuan said.
The festival was created to prompt people to avoid illness caused by the sweltering summer weather, which is why people would hang a bind of wormwood at house entrances and drink Chinese medicinal wine during the festival, traditions largely lost in modern times, Yuan said.
Even the dragon boat racing, he went on, was held in the name of chasing away “water ghosts,” but in fact was a kind of advertising designed to educate people to be careful when playing in water during the warmer weather.
“Today, the festival has lost its meaning of health care, as people’s way of life has changed with modernization,” Yuan said.
He noted that since people now use air conditioners and various mosquito repellent products, they no longer need the festival’s practical functions.
The Dragon Boat Festival is also designated as Poets’ Day, in commemoration of the Chinese patriotic poet Qu Yuan (屈原) (340BC-278 BC), who committed suicide by drowning himself in a river in May.
After his death, people made zongzi, a pyramid-shaped glutinous rice delicacy with a savory filling wrapped in bamboo leaves that is still a common food for Chinese people today.
They threw the zongzi into the river for the fish, so that they would not feast on the poet’s corpse.
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