Of sacrifice, glutinous rice parcels and dragon boat race

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It is believed that the winning dragon boat team during Duanwu Jie would be blessed with good luck and prosperity for the following year. — AFP file photo

THE Dragon Boat Festival, widely known as ‘Duanwu Jie’, is one of the four most significant traditional festivals celebrated by the Chinese community across the globe.

The date for this festival varies every year, as it is on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar – on the Gregorian calendar, it can be between May and June.

This year, the festival’s date was marked on June 22.

Significant occasion

According to Sarawak Chinese Federation Associations (SFCA) president Datuk Richard Wee, Duanwu Jie along with Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, Chinese Tomb Festival or Qingming Jie and Mid-Autumn Festival, are the most celebrated and also the most significant traditional festivals of the community.

The festival commemorates Qu Yuan, the Prime Minister of Chu, one of the ‘Warring States’ in China in the days past.

“Qu Yuan was fiercely patriotic to Chu. His advice and policies were not accepted by the Emperor of Chu, which subsequently led to the demise of the Chu State, which was conquered by Qin, the rival state.

“Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Mi Luo River,” he told thesundaypost in Kuching.

The people of Chu respected and revered Qu Yuan so much that when they heard about him having jumped into the river, they took their boats out in attempts to rescue him, but to no avail.

Wee says the moral significance of Duanwu Jie is to instil in oneself patriotism, loyalty and filial piety.

“That’s the significance of the dragon boat race,” said Wee.

Upon realising that they could not rescue Qu Yuan, the Chu folks started making rice dumplings and threw them into Mi Luo River, hoping that the fish would eat the dumplings instead of Qu Yuan’s remains.

“This is the original story of Duanwu Jie. The moral significance of the festival is to instil in oneself patriotism, loyalty and filial piety,” said Wee.

The local Chinese community leader added that the dragon boat races were held many years ago, around that one period in the fifth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar.

He then remembered how it subsequently coincided with the Sarawak Regatta, which later overtook the event.

In this respect, Wee said the SFCA was mulling the idea of reintroducing the dragon boat race for the Duanwu Jie celebration.

“We intend to discuss the matter with the Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts as well as the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Entrepreneur Development,” he said.

File photo shows participants getting ready for their respective categories of the Sarawak International Dragon Boat Race, at Kuching Waterfront in November 2016.

‘Possibly world’s first fast-food takeaway’

Wee then talked about the rice dumplings, known as ‘zongzi’ or the more known ‘bak chang’, made during the Duanwu Jie celebration.

Comprising glutinous rice stuffed with various fillings, this would be wrapped in bamboo leaves or other large flat leaves, and tied with natural-fibre strings (nowadays, the commercially-available synthetic strings are used) to keep the content tight and intact.

These fragrant parcels would then be cooked either by steaming or boiling.

Many prefer the zongzi with savoury meat fillings than the sweet variety. — See Hua Daily News photo

These days, zongzi is available throughout the year. There are still some Chinese families who would make their own dumplings especially for Duanwu Jie.

As poetic as the notion of the Chinese eating zongzi during Duanwu Jie in the memory of Qu Yuan, there are archaeological evidence that suggests this specialty food having existed long before the time of Qu Yuan – very likely that it was created after rice was first cultivated a couple of thousands of years ago.

Zongzi could have been the ancient version of today’s fast-food takeaway, as the long working day would leave the farmers unable to go back home for a meal.

There are two major types: the savoury zongzi that almost always has meat fillings, and the sweet variety that usually comes with red bean paste filling.

Former president of the Federation of Kuching, Samarahan and Serian Divisions Chinese Associations, Dr Chou Chii Ming, said the story of zongzi, if the China’s history were to be followed, began long before the era of Qu Yuan, said to be from 278 BC to 243 BC.

He said during the ancient times, these sticky rice dumplings already existed, being made as offerings for the ancestors.

It was much later when zongzi was formally established as the main offering to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, honouring his patriotism for his homeland Chu.

“Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself into Mi Luo River because he was deported and could not serve his country in crisis,” he told thesundaypost via call from Cape Town, South Africa.

Dr Chou poses at the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern point of the African continent.

‘Paddle away to victory’

On the Dragon Boat race, Dr Chou said long before Duanwu Jie, which was formally established in 278 BC, people had used the boats to ferry their offerings to pacify the ‘Gods of River, Water Dams and Sea’.

The dragon boat race could have been carried out since way back 2,000 years ago, as the means for the worship of the ‘God of Dragon’ or ‘God of Water’.

Traditionally, at least 30 paddlers would be required for one dragon boat, and each team member would move in sync with the beating of drums – an exciting sound that should serve to motivate them to ‘outpaddle’ their competitors and win the race.

The belief was whichever dragon boat team that won would be blessed with good luck and prosperity for the following year.

Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Hangzhou are touted as the hosts of the most renowned dragon boat races in the world.

In Malaysia, Penang is said to be the first place outside China to host this kind of race, which the peninsular state has been running annually for over three decades.

‘Getting rid of bad luck’

The fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar has been considered as an ‘ill-starred’ month since the ancient times in China, as venomous creatures namely centipedes and scorpions would emerge around that time.

On top of this, natural disasters and illnesses were also common due to the seasonal fluctuations in this month, which would mark the beginning of summer.

This was why in China, people would hang mugwort (herb related to the local ‘ulam raja’) and calamus (‘jerangau’ in Malay) on their doors or walls to ward off pests, as well as evil spirits.

This tradition is still being practised in many rural areas in China, although the urban folks no longer uphold it.

According to Dr Chou, mugwort is a valuable herb, which the Chinese believe as being powerful enough to drive away evil spirits, on top of welcoming good health and happiness.

“The fifth day of the fifth lunar month is a day to send off the evil ‘Gods of Plagues’.

“This is why hanging mugwort on doorways is done, to ‘frighten away’ the evil gods on that day.

“Coincidentally, though, it was also the day when Qu Yuan sacrificed himself as his unyielding show of patriotism,” he said.

When it comes to the Duanwu Jie celebration in China, it seems to be divided into two categories: one as a worship for the God of Dragon and a remembrance of Qu Yuan; the other to keep evil spirits and bad luck at bay.

In Sarawak, the first category is more recognised, although more on honouring Qu Yuan and not so much on the ‘God of Dragon’.

In China, prior to Duanwu Jie, parents would usually prepare fragrant sachets for their children, in the belief that having these small talismans would protect the little onese from evil spirits.

These mini pouches, with strings, are usually made from colourful silk materials, with each filled with herbal medicines or fragrant substances.

It is either hung around a child’s neck, or attached as an ornament onto the child’s garment.

“The tradition of parents making fragrant sachets for their children on Duanwu Jie is not followed by the local Chinese community.

“More often than not, people extend festival greetings that begin with the word ‘Happy’ such as Happy Mid-Autumn Festival,” said Dr Chou.

This word, however, may sound weird since the festival is held in remembering the death of Qu Yuan.

Still, it is not wrong for people to say ‘Happy Duanwu Jie’ or ‘Happy Dragon Boat Festival’.

It is worth noting that over the past several years, the people in China have been greeting each other ‘Healthy Dragon Boat Festival’, believing that the word ‘healthy’ – ‘An Kang’ in Chinese – is more appropriate than ‘happy’.