Dragon Boat Festival: who needs the boats?

18 Jun 2015

One thing that many non-Chinese may not realize is that the average Chinese person doesn’t really care about dragon boat races on Dragon Boat Festival. Sure, we call it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English, but the dragon boats (龙舟) are just the easiest part of the festival’s traditions to translate. In fact, Wikipedia uses the name Duanwu Festival for its English article, reflecting the Chinese name 端午节.

Duanwu Jie truth

The most visible tradition of Duanwu Festival for me personally has always been the zongzi (粽子), those bamboo-leaf-wrapped, stuffed glutinous rice triangle-ish things. They’re quite tasty (although you might want to be careful if you have an aversion to pork fat; some of them are a little high on fat and low on meat).

One of the traditions I just recently became aware of is the Duanwu Festival use of a plant called 艾草 (Artemisia argyi in English). It’s a strongly aromatic plant, and the idea is that you hang it by the doorway of your home to ward off bugs and disease.

Apparently this tradition is not observed by young people very much (at least in Shanghai), so I’m not sure how long this particular tradition will be around. But today I snapped some pictures of (mostly old) people loading up on 艾草 at the wet market in preparation for Duanwu Festival. (Those bundles are two for 5 RMB, which to me seems to reinforce the idea that only old people buy it.) Photos below.

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Here’s what a zongzi gift set looks like:

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This one, sold by a Korean bakery chain that pretends to be French (巴黎贝甜), includes 12 zongzi and retails for 158 RMB. (Normally individual zongzi sell for less than 10 RMB.)

In 2015 端午节 falls on June 20.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Jodi’s mom does the 艾叶 thing. One Youtube video I was watching said that by tradition it wards off evil spirits, but that objectively it has disinfectant properties and wards off mosquitoes, who start coming out at about 端午 every year.

    Interestingly, Wikipedia has 艾叶 translated as mugwort, which we have plenty of around here in the hills of Ojai. I’ll see if I can search some out tomorrow…

  2. Dragon boat races are very popular worldwide (some take place off-season, i.e. not even close to 端午节). Here in Vancouver BC competitions are fierce & a favorite summer activity amongst young and not-so-young, especially breast-cancer survivors (or patients ??). I always enjoy watching them.

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