Here in Taiwan it’s time for the annual Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 端午節), which also happens to be a school holiday. The traditional story of this festival is well summarized by Wikipedia:
The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (c. 340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi [a kind of glutinous rice snack eaten at this time]. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.
This is the version of the story which most Taiwanese learn in school, but the truth is much more interesting. I recently discovered that there is some nice work on the sociology of sports being done at National Taiwan Sport University 國立體育大學, where I found Li-Ke Chan’s paper “Post-colonial Dragon Boat Races: Some Preliminary Thoughts” [PDF]. Here’s what I learned from Chan’s paper:
First of all, it points out that dragon boat racing’s origins are probably much older than the official story suggests, having been carried out by Southern Chinese clans as part of shamanistic rituals viewed as barbaric by the Han Chinese. Moreover, conflicts between “Confucian orthodoxy with the popular ritual” frequently led to the rituals being banned. It was also banned as one of the “Four Olds” during the early Communist period.
Second, it also seems this ritual was also common in Qing-era Taiwan, such as 18th and 19th century rituals practiced by Plains Aborigines (Pingpu zu 平埔族) in what is now Ilan county (宜蘭縣). This was not a competitive event, and the author suggests that the dragon motif was absent as well, nonetheless they are sometimes talked about as “dragon boat” races in the archive. When the Japanese colonized Taiwan they tried to control these local rituals by limiting the number of days, or forcing them to adopt more Chinese-style Dragon Boat races. The Japanese were also trying to organize and control the Chinese Dragon Boat races, sometimes having them scheduled on Japanese Navy Day (which fell close to the Chinese holiday).
Finally, when the KMT took control of Taiwan after the war, they saw the Dragon Boat Festival as a means to promote their legitimacy as the true heirs to China’s traditional culture. Chan points out that this traditionalism also included an implicit modernization as the focus shifted from ritual to sports. The “race was officially organized first time under the name of ‘Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Cup.”
The article goes on to discuss the modern significance of the ritual in Hong Kong and China, but I’ll let you read that for yourself. If you can, find your local Chinatown and buy some zongzi!