Dragon Boat Festival

Category: Social Practices, Rituals and Festive Events

Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie, 端午节) falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and is celebrated by Chinese communities worldwide, including in Singapore. Its origins can be traced to China where the festival evolved from the practice of revering the river dragon and became popularly associated with the commemoration of Qu Yuan (屈原).

Dragon Boat RacingDragon Boat Race. Courtesy of Yeo Kirk Siang.

Born in 340 B.C. in the state of Chu, Qu Yuan held various official positions and was the trusted counsellor of King Huai of Chu. In the midst of turmoil during the Warring States period (481 – 221 B.C.), he warned the King of the impending threat from the Qin state. However, influential figures in the imperial court sowed discord, and caused Qu Yuan to be exiled. In 278 B.C., the armies of Qin occupied the capital of Chu. Upon hearing the news, Qu Yuan tied himself to a large rock and jumped into the Mi Luo River in despair.

Some accounts suggest that fishermen rowed out to save Qu Yuan. Having failed, they scattered rice stuffed in bamboo stems into the river to prevent fishes from eating his body. Other accounts suggest that the fishermen beat their drums and splashed their paddles in the water to prevent fish and water dragons from eating Qu Yuan’s body, and sought to appease his spirit by casting rice into the river. This led to rituals such as the preparation and consumption of glutinous rice dumplings and dragon boat racing in honour of Qu Yuan.

During the 19th century, Chinese immigrants brought customs and beliefs associated with the festival to Singapore. Today, glutinous rice dumplings (pyramid-shaped dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves) have become a common food item that is available throughout the year, and no longer just consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival.

Different dialect groups have different variants of the rice dumpling. For example, Hokkien rice dumplings include marinated pork and chestnuts, while Nyonya rice dumplings use ingredients such as five spice powder, diced pork and candied winter melon. In recent years, new flavours such as chili crab dumplings and black pepper chicken dumplings have emerged to appeal to changing tastes.

The making of dumplings remains a family tradition for some, especially among women of the older generation. The glutinous rice dumplings bound by strings are shared with friends and relatives. For those who are religious, the rice dumplings will be offered to gods such as Tua Pek Gong (大伯公), a deity figure symbolising good fortune, and as part of ancestral worship before consumption.

Dragon Boat racing is commonly regarded as a sport in Singapore, and there some boats that still retain the traditional long and narrow shape, and are adorned with painted dragon heads. It has become a popular sporting event among schools and corporates, and there are competitive races held annually.

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