This past weekend China celebrated Dragon Boat Festival, a colorful festival which kicks off the heart of the summer, with racing traditionally decorated boats, seasonal snacks and three days off from work. In Chinese, the festival is known as 端午节 (duan wu jie), or the festival of the extremity of noon or the overhead meridian. It is determined by the lunar calendar, the fifth day of the fifth month to be exact, so from year to year it floats around the months of May and June. This year, it happened to nearly coincide with the actual summer solstice, coming on June 20 just a few days before the sun would be at its extreme on the 22nd. We headed across the Pearl River Delta to Macau to observe the holiday and the proper start of summer.
Dragon Boat Festival remembers the life of an ancient poet and statesman, Qu Yuan (屈原), who lived during the Warring States period of ancient China, in about the third century BC. Tradition holds that in protest of the corruption of the government of the time, he threw himself into a river and drowned. Fellow villagers were moved to prevent the decay of his body, and so threw dumplings of sticky rice into the water to distract the fish. Others took off in boats with the head of the dragon to ward off bad spirits and find his body. And two Dragon Boat Festival traditions originated—eating of sticky rice zongzi (粽子), and the racing of dragon boats. Dropping the bundled zongzi to bob in a pot of boiling water, I always think of the ancient story, marveling that battling corruption has origins so ancient and poetic.
An ancient poem attributed to Qu Yuan laments the downfall of his country, with devastating and moving imagery.
After the boat race in Macau, we wandered the village streets, coming upon stalls of dried fish and make shift temples with fists of red incense burning to the local gods. The major A Ma temple at the southern tip of the peninsula of Macau is dedicated to Mazu (妈祖), the ancestral mother of the waters, who protects all those who set sail on the sea. Inside and out, the temple is decorated with the motifs of the sea, carved into outcroppings of stone, and festooned with brilliant flags of local clans. Macau’s maritime roots are a palpable sea spray on this ancient holiday.