Dragonboat Festival celebrates mirth and misfortune.
Falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the festival may carry bad luck, according to traditional Chinese superstition, where the “Double Fifth” day signals infestation and epidemic. But through modern renditions of the traditional totem boat race, zongzi-wrapping, and herb-picking for disease prevention, these fortunate customs rid of any misfortune.
Why a dragon?
During the Neolithic Age, an area South of the Yangtze River housed the Yue 古越族, an ancient tribe who believed that their descendants were the dragon. Like many ancient groups who celebrated to reconnect with their origin, the Yue dedicated the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to worship their four-legged ancestor. Thousands of years later, archaeologists discovered cultural remains of the Yue on a beach near Shanghai. Unearthed from the ground were bronze drums painted delicately with dragon boat illustrations, shipped to the lab as the earliest record of dragon boat racing. Experts speculate that the Yue painted tribal totems on the canoes and rode these totem boats as their main mode of transportation, visiting remote friends or rowing through the aisles to catch fish and shrimp. Purposed for more casual activities, the totem boat evolved into the dragon boat; the Yue craved the friendliness of competition and the pride of winning, thus hosted boat races and sent ripples of this custom to other regions. The river proves to have no dead end, as dragon boats nowadays slither through the Chicago River once every year. Similar to the evolution of their totem boats, the Yue culture gradually emerged as multiple, either merging with the Han nationality or developing into Southern minority groups.
Phases of the Dragonboat Festival
The nature of the boat itself carries sacred meaning, the vessel animating as a divine being, a dragon asleep that must awake and ready for its ultimate duty. Artists proceed with steps, beginning at the start of the month, in order to prime the dragon: prepare, wake up, open, and invite.
On the first day of the fifth lunar month, artists begin to “prepare the dragon” by washing the dragon’s head. At this time, the dragon is dormant as its eyes are “closed”.
On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the worship team “wakes up the dragon” by offering worship and animal sacrifice to the water god.
Afterward, the artists would “open light 开光”, dipping Chinese brushes in black ink and painting pupils onto the dragon’s eyes. Not only does “open light” revivify its potency, but signifies consecration of the race.
They then “invite the dragon”, or entrance it with lion dance and firecrackers to thrum its fire.
Onlookers toss Zongzi into the river to pray for safety and victory of the race.
At noon, the race officially begins.
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