Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dragon Boat Festival

The Legend

They say that over 2000 years ago, Qu Yuan, a 4th-century statesman, poet, and advisor to the king, rather like our Golden Toad, upset somebody high up in management. He was on a big anti-corruption crusade as some government officials were very corrupt. Amazing how nothing changes over time. Qu Yuan was exiled from the ancient state of Chu after his advice to the king was misinterpreted. The king thought he was wanting to take over and just did as any king would do at the time. Meantime, Qu Yuan was just trying to warn the king about the baddies in his government. For speaking his mind and having an opinion, which was obviously an offense at that time, Qu Yuan was banished to a remote area of Hunan Province in southern China.

If anybody has been exposed to Asian culture and their way of thinking, you'd know that to be banished would be a huge serious loss of face. The dishonor of being exiled was a heavy burden on Qu Yuan. So, as anybody who felt embarassed and ashamed would do, he threw himself into the torrents of the Miluo River. Unfortunately for him, some local fishermen raced out onto the water to save the drowning Qu Yuan. The fishermen wildly beat their drums and splashed the water with their paddles to prevent the water dragons and fish from eating Qu Yuan. After all, they washed their clothes in that water and filled up their buckets with drinking water from that river, they would not want their pure water to be sullied by bits and pieces of a body after the fish had had a go.

The last poem written by Qu Yuan which I suppose would now be classed as a suicide note.

Many a heavy sigh I have in my despair,
Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time.
I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix chariot,

And waited for the wind to come,
to sour up on my journey

The modern Dragon Boat Race is based upon a traditional re-enactment of the race to save Qu Yuan. Over the centuries, village fishing boats went out each year in a symbolic search, and began to take part in races that evolved into Dragon Boat Racing’s present form.

The Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival officially falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and is also coincidently enough, known as Double Fifth Day. This is the annniversary of Qu Yuan's death and has been celebrated annually for close on 2000 years.

Dragon Boat races are the most exciting part of the festival, drawing crowds of spectators which sit on the banks of the rivers or lakes, depending on where the races are held. Dragon Boats are generally brightly painted and decorated canoes. Ranging anywhere from 40 to 100 feet in length, their heads are shaped like open-mouthed dragons, while the sterns end with a scaly tail. Depending on the length, up to 80 rowers can power the boat. However, most times you have fa

r fewer rowers than that. A drummer sits at the front of the boat, keeping time by beating the drum. This sets the rhythm as the rowers put their oars into the water in time to the beat of the drum. Before a dragon boat enters competition, it must be "brought to life" by painting the eyes in a sacred ceremony.

The traditional food for the Dragon Boat Festival, Zong zi is a glutinous rice ball, with a filling, wrapped in corn leaves. The fillings can be egg, beans, dates, fruits, sweet potato, walnuts, mushrooms, meat, or a combination of them. They are generally steamed. Sounds really yummy, doesn't it?

As this is the official start of summer, it is also the start of the time of rampant diseases, so people put up good luck charms in their houses, adults drink a special wine to warn off evil spirits, kids wear fragrant silk pouches, all of this to stay healthy. Another belief, is that if you balance a raw egg on its end at exactly noon on the 5th day of the 5th month, you'll have unbelievable good luck for the rest of the year. This year the Dragon Festival falls on the 28th May which also happens to be my birthday. I'll be making sure that I'll be balancing raw eggs on their ends all around my house on that day!

Race Day

The Sheraton Kingsley held their 9th annual Dragon Boat Racing Day on Saturday 23 May. We got there early and had our first glass of wine at 8.30am. Hey, just following the traditions and having wine to give us good health and good luck. I must be honest though, that by 4pm I was not feeling very healthy from drinking wine since 8.30am. However, a visit to the Mexican Restaurant and a bowl of french fries with a salsa dip and a couple of mojitos, made me feel much better.

The racing was exciting and when you hear the drums beat out the beat for the oarsmen and listen to some of them chant in time, you do feel like you have gone back in history. There were a couple of funny moments, when a friend on his dragon boat suddenly turned the boat sideways and headed off in the wrong direction, before managing to get the boat turned around in the

opposite direction and paddled furiously to narrowly avoid crashing into a boat going in the right direction. The races usually last just over 2 minutes each, and we had to wait 10 minutes after the other boats had completed the race, for my friend and his crew to find their direction and cross the finish line. It could be because they had started celebrating their victory at 3pm on the Friday before the races, and were all so completely intoxicated by the time they climbed into their dragon boat, that they weren't sure which end they were supposed to paddle with.

I love people watching just as much as I enjoyed watching the dragon boat racing, and I wondered how long it would take for others in our group to notice the fact that the muscular middle-aged Chinese man in white trousers was not wearing any underwear. At first I thought it was my imagination as when he walked it seemed like he had an animal in his trousers fighting to be set free, at other times it was more like the pendulum of a clock swinging back and forth. Every now and then you'd hear someone exclaim, "My God, is that man wearing underwear?" After which, the rest of us would crack up laughing.

All in all, it was an excellent day with entertaining company, a great lunch buffet put on by the Sheraton, all day free wine and beer until they ran out of white and we had to switch to red. A really good memory to take with me when I leave China.

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