I have never attended the dragon boat races held in Penang during the yearly festival that falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. And it was only relatively recently that I made the connection between zhang (glutinous rice dumplings) and the festival. I used to hear of ‘zhang festival’ when I was growing up, but perhaps because there was no boat racing in Segamat or Batu Pahat, Johor, the boats were never mentioned.
Zhang is also called zongzi 粽子 and the significance of this food is that it was thrown into a river to keep the fish from eating the body of a poet named Qu Yuan 屈原.
Legend has it that Qu was a minister of the state of Chu during the Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States period of Chinese history. He was a member of the cadet branch of the royal house of Chu, but when he opposed the emperor’s alliance with the state of Qin, Qu was accused of treason and banished. Twenty-eight years later, when the capital of Chu was captured by the Qin state, Qu Yuan committed suicide by leaping into the Miluo River. The locals, who admired his poetry and his upright character, set forth in their boats, hoping to save him from drowning. Alas, they were too late.
The dragon boat races are said to commemorate the race to save Qu from a watery death and the glutinous rice that was thrown into the river to feed the fish is why zongzi is eaten during this festival. (However, these days, zongzi or zhang (in particular bak zhang, which is stuffed with pork, salted egg, chestnuts and dried mushrooms) is available for purchase all year round.)
This is just one explanation for the festival. There are other legends associated with it and other regions of China. There is also a theory that the festival originates from ‘dragon’ worship. This makes sense considering the kind of boat that is raced, with a ‘dragon’ head carved on its the prow.
The ancient Yue tribes (Baiyue 百越) who lived in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, worshipped ‘dragon’ totems and considered the ‘dragon’ an ancestor. Some tribes were assimilated into the Han race and it’s more than likely that rituals, beliefs and culture merged. The fifth day of the fifth lunar month usually falls near the time of the summer solstice. In China, the festival is called duānwǔ jié 端午節, which refers to position of the sun during this period. Both the sun and ‘dragons’ are associated with powerful yang (male) energy and vital to the success of a harvest. In addition, Chinese ‘dragons’ are said to rule moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, and control rainfall, wind, and clouds, once again underlining their importance in ensuring bountiful rice harvests. A festival that features ‘dragon’ boats on a river and involving sacrifices of rice makes perfect sense.
N.B. I use the term ‘dragon boat festival’ because it is the popular name for the event. However, it seems to be used everywhere except in China. I believe it’s a westernised term. In Mandarin, the festival is called duānwǔ jié 端午節 — no mention of ‘dragons’ or rather, lóng 龍, which I think they should be called. In my opinion they have nothing to do with the dragons which are found in the West, and I doubt they are even related to them as a species (fantastic or otherwise).