Essay: My Family’s Dragon Boat Festival

While we’re busy prepping for our holiday season, I figured I’d post something about a Chinese holiday. This is a culturally-rich and comfortably intermediate essay describing how one family celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节 duān wǔ jié. If you’re curious what the typical Chinese household does on this late-spring holiday (held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar), you’ll love this read. The customs described are quite unlike any holidays in the West.

The dragon boat festival is held in remembrance of poet Qu Yuan’s death. Qu Yuan was a faithful servant of his emperor, but was falsely accused of being a traitor. He drowned himself in a river after several decades in exile, but the local people loved him and remember him fondly. Sounds morbid, but actually the festival is a joyous one, where dragon boats are raced on the river (to commemorate the search for Qu Yuan’s body) and 粽子 zòng zi5 (boiled triangular rice balls wrapped in leaves) are eaten (when he died, it’s said that 粽子 were thrown into the river to feed him in the afterlife – other stories have it that people threw 粽子 into the river to keep the fish from eating his body before they could find it).

A couple of words in this essay are not in the dictionary, and need explaining: namely 艾香. I this case, 艾香 ài xiāng means “the smell of wormwood”, and it refers to the smell produced by bouquets of wormwood (艾草) that people hang on their door during the Dragon Boat Festival to drive away bad luck.

Another word here is 雄黄酒, something that I’ve seen but never tried, and while there is an English word for this, I’ve never heard this spoken in English. 雄黄酒 is “realgar wine”, whatever the heck realgar is. If you’re curious, this article has more information on realgar wine and it’s association with the Dragon Boat Festival.

And finally, there’s 趟露水, literally “to wade in the dew”, and it refers to (what I think is a) regional custom of going out on an early morning walk and anointing one’s face with dew drops.






Show English translation »
Today is the Dragon Boat Festival, my family got out of bed at 5:00, and in accordance with local customs, when up the mountain to wade in the dew. On the road, I used both hands to cup sparkling dewdrops and smear them on my eyes, for a moment I felt as if they [my eyes] were considerably brightened. I felt they remained extremely bright as I sat in the classroom and read books; I could see every word clearly.

When school let out, I let my legs loose and ran towards home. As soon as I reached the door I could smell the scent of zongzi, and as I entered I saw my father had made a whole table of delicious food that was just waiting for me to come home and eat it. I washed my hands and went to the dining table, first I broke open one zongzi each for father and mother and sprinkled them with white sugar, then I broke open a beautiful triangular zongzi for myself, sprinkled it with white sugar and heartily began eating. At the dining table, our family ate and chatted, the woom was full of Dragon Boat Festival good cheer, suffused with the savory smell of zongzi and thick with the smell of wormwood.

After we’d had eaten, mother spread realgar wine on my ears, put lipstick on my lips, placed [bracelets of] red rope around my wrists, and made sure I smelled as sweetly as a zongzi, then sent me off back to school to study.

I love eating zongzi, I loved the Dragon Boat Festival, and I love enjoying the holiday cheer.

6 replies on “Essay: My Family’s Dragon Boat Festival”

Yeah, I think the same day you were there I was actually at Longwood Gardens to get some good fall pictures. My preparation for The Storm was to get some good photographs before Sandy blew all of the leaves off the trees!

I remember everything my teacher told us about the Dragon boat festival. It makes me want to go to China and get a first hand experience of the festival.

I searched Realgar, and it appears to be an arsenic mineral. Growing up in China, I remember that the normal rice wine had a red waxy seal on the pottery jars. I wonder if Realgar wine is just rice wine, which each family made, and was drunk with most meals.

Hi there! So, I think that one is right, and I’ll tell you my reasoning: 1) There are actually quite a few ways to say “putting on lipstick / chapstick”. Most common is 涂口红 or 涂唇膏, you can also 抹口红, or 擦口红. I think the author chose 摸 partially to describe it as as less of a “smearing” and more of a… dabbing? Probably with the finger? And partially because she was trying to use a different verb than was used in the clause before it (抹了雄黄酒) .

This is a kind of abstract observation, but I’ve noticed that in Chinese art and culture, symmetry is extremely important. Left and right should balance each other, top and bottom should set each other off precisely. We see this most obviously in traditional architecture, but it even extends to things like the way the government is structured. And of course it extends to language – if you’re going to use three verbs, 抹(雄黄酒), 摸(唇膏), 戴(红线绳), if two of them were the same and the third was was different, this would instinctively feel like bad writing to a native reader. They all should be different, so I think that’s probably a subconscious reason the author didn’t pick 抹 for this one.

But, as always, I’m open to correction.

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