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Hong Kong rowing teams compete during one of the many races that take place during the Dragon Boat Festival. (Associated Press)

The Legends Behind the Dragon Boat Festival

Celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, Duanwu Jie honors storied history with culinary treats

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But Qu Yuan became the face of Duanwu Jie, because he was a prolific polemical poet whose work was studied and loved by generations of Chinese scholars who followed him. “One reason Qu Yuan wins the drowning war is that his story was written in historical texts—over and over,” says Anderson Turner. Having demonstrated both love for his country and contempt for the ungracious ruling class, he is known as the People’s Poet. For the Chinese, Qu Yuan has transcended the simple story of his self-sacrifice, coming to represent the very embodiment of patriotism.

Likewise, both the Dragon Boat races and zongzi have become much bigger than just the holiday. In many places, if you head to a waterway on the weekend of May 28, you’ll find the intricately decorated boats manned by two rows of paddlers egged on by loud drummers. But if you miss the festival, there are other chances: the International Dragon Boat Federation is the umbrella group for rowing clubs all over the world who compete year-round; they’ll hold this year’s world championships in August in Prague.

As part of the festival, zongzi has become just as ubiquitous as the dragon boats, thanks to the great Chinese diaspora. Today you can get the sticky rice balls anywhere there’s a Chinese population, Yan says: year-round in convenience stores in New York’s Chinatown, as bite-size delicacies in tea houses in Hong Kong, as an on-the-go snack for tourists in Cambodia, wrapped in a pandan leaf in Malaysia.

Does the omnipresence of these traditions dissipate the power of a myth that has been celebrated annually for 1500 years? As the evolution of Qu Yuan’s story proves, traditions change. The strongest ones endure despite alterations. Back in the day, Anderson Turner notes, rowers who fell out of the dragon boats were left to fend for themselves or drown because their fate was seen as the will of the dragon deities. “I haven’t talked to any contemporary dragon boat racers and asked why they do save people who fall out now,” she says. “But I’d bet they could reconcile doing so with keeping to the spirit of the story.”

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