By Cathy Huang
Today marks the annual Dragon Boat Festival, commemorating the dead, observed primarily in central and southern China. It occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and falls between 28 May and 25 June in the Western calendar. During this festival, people along the sea coasts and major rivers compete in races in boats made from wooden planks and carved with dragon heads and tails.
A team of young adult males row the boats, directed by a team leader who synchronizes their action with a big drum. While racing dragon boats in the competition, the competitors occasionally toss triangular-shaped rice cakes, typically made from glutinous rice with meat or sweet bean paste stuffing and wrapped in bamboo leaves, into the water. Popular folktale attributes this festival to the patriotic poet Qu Yuan, who lived in the third and second centuries BCE in the southern kingdom of Chu during the late Zhou dynasty (1045–246 BCE). According to legend, Qu was dissatisfied with the ineptness of the Chu king, and when the king spurned his advice repeatedly, Qu threw himself into a river in today’s Hunan Province. The boat racing is said to have originated from the attempt to recover his body. Throwing rice cakes symbolizes a sacrificial offering to Qu.