The Dragon Boat Festival: A Fusion of Traditional and Modern Culture
I have lived in Malaysia for over 20 years. During this time, I have developed a great appreciation for the cultures and customs that exist in Malaysia, which has inspired me to share more about the aspects of Malaysia that I like very much.
One such example is the Dragon Boat Festival, which was originally from China, but has since been adopted into Malaysian culture. The adoption of this festival demonstrates the multi-ethnic nature of the Malaysian population. This ability to embrace various customs is the reason why Malaysia is so rich in its cultural identity.
Therefore, I am pleased to present you with this article on the Dragon Boat Festival, its origins, how the custom was assimilated into Malaysian culture, and how people participate in the festival. The article also contains information about zongzi, glutinous rice balls, which are closely related to the Dragon Boat Festival.
The Origins of the Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival (Chinese: Longchuanjie) is also known as Tuen Ng, Duanwu Festival, or Zhongxiao Festival. The festival is said to celebrate loyalty to one’s country and filial piety to one’s parents. Traditionally, the festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. For that reason, the festival date varies from year to year when following the International (Gregorian) calendar.
The Dragon Boat Festival is also known as the ‘Fifth Month Festival’ or the ‘Dumpling Festival’ among Chinese Malaysians, Singaporeans, and the Taiwanese. In the ethnic Chinese Hokkien communities, the festival is also known as Peh Cun.
There are three known versions of the story that recount the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival. All three of these stories have tragic endings which are similar and moral lessons for us to contemplate.
Version 1: The Legend of Qu Yuan (340 – 278 BCE) – The Benevolent Nobleman
The story of Qu Yuan is the most widely accepted origin story of the Dragon Boat Festival. Qu Yuan was a benevolent nobleman from the state of Chu in ancient China and according to Sima Qian‘s Records of the Grand Historian, he was a member of the Chu royal family. Initially, he served as a minister during the time of King Huai of Chu, who ruled China between 328 – 299 BCE. Due to the influence of several corrupt ministers, King Huai exiled Qu Yuan to a region north of the Han River. He was eventually reinstated to his former position and assigned to establish a diplomatic relationship between the state of Chu and the state of Qi, a neighbouring kingdom.
After King Huai passed away, his successor, King Qingxian, ascended the throne. Foreseeing that the state of Qin would attack the state Chu, Qu Yuan advised the king to join forces with the state of Qi in order to fight them. The Prime Minister at the time, Zilan, was unhappy about this proposal and sought to turn King Qingxian against Qu Yuan. The King listened to the Prime Minister and Qu Yuan was once again exiled, this time to a region south of the Yangtze River.
During his time in exile, Qu Yuan spent most of his time gathering folk tales and legends, and writing poems about his love for his country. Today, some of his works are considered to be among the greatest poems in Chinese literature.
The local villagers respected Qu Yuan because they viewed him as a wise and benevolent man. However, Qu Yuan remained worried that his prediction regarding the future attack on the state of Chu would eventually come true, and this anxiety affected his health.
In 278 BCE, Qu Yuan’s worst fear came true. General Bai Qi from the state of Qin captured Ying, Chu’s capital. Upon hearing the news, Qu Yuan wrote a poem called ‘Lament for Ying’, and committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River, which is located in present-day Hunan Province of China. When they heard about Qu Yuan’s suicide, the local villagers rushed to the Miluo River to try to save him. They searched for him with their boats and beat their drums in a desperate attempt to save Qu Yuan. It was this hectic search for Qu Yuan that became the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival.
As they searched for Qu Yuan’s body, the villagers threw rice balls into the river to keep evil spirits and creatures in the river away from his body. Later on, Qu Yuan appeared to his friends in a dream to explain the circumstances surrounding his death and asked his friends to wrap the rice balls in three-cornered silk packages to pacify a dragon. Qu Yuan’s friends spread the news and began the tradition of making and offering the three-cornered rice packages to the dragon on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Today, the three-cornered rice packages are wrapped in leaves and known as zongzi.
Version 2: Wu Zixu (unknown – 484 BCE) – The Nobleman Who was Shunned by His Master
In Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, Wu Zixu was also known as the Duke of Shen, or Shen Xu. As a trusted adviser to King Helu of Wu, he recommended the promotion of Bo Pi as a minister, despite warnings about his shady character. After King Helu’s passing, Wu Zixu was unable to build rapport with the new King Fuchai. Foreseeing that King Goujian of Yue, would one day attack the state of Wu, Wu Zixu advised King Fuchai to conquer the state of Yue before this could happen. But the king did not believed him. To make matters worse, King Fuchai chose to listen to Bo Pi, who advocated peace between the two kingdoms. Little did they know that Bo Pi had been bribed by King Goujian of Yue to manipulate the situation.
Wu Zixu begged King Fuchai to follow his advice, but it only made him angry. The King gave Wu Zixu a sword and ordered him to commit suicide. Before he passed away, Wu Zixu requested that his eyes be removed after his death and placed at the city’s entrance so he could see his prediction come true. Instead, King Fuchai ordered Wu Zixu’s body to be thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. Approximately ten years after Wu Zixu’s passing, his prediction came true. King Goujian of Yue attacked and conquered the state of Wu, while King Fuchai was engaged in a war with the state of Qi. In desperation, King Fuchian committed suicide with his eyes covered because he was ashamed of meeting Wu Zixu in the afterlife. Ironically, King Goujian convicted Bo Pi of treason against King Fuchai, and of taking bribes from foreign dignitaries. To this day, Wu Zixu is remembered during the Dragon Boat Festival, especially in the eastern-central coastal provinces of China.
Version 3: Cao E (130–143 CE) The Girl Who Lost Her Father
Cao E was a daughter of a shaman named Cao Xu. One day, while he was conducting a ritual to commemorate the memory of Wu Zixu, Cao Xu fell into the Shun River. Devastated, Cao E spent days searching the river for her father. Five days after the incident, both Cao E’s and Cao Xu’s lifeless bodies were found in the river.
Eight years later, the locals built a temple in Shangyu to remember Cao E’s act of filial piety, and the Shun River was renamed Cao E River in her memory. Cao E’s sacrifice is remembered during the Dragon Boat Festival, especially in Northeastern Zhejiang, China.
There are arguments that these legends were promoted by Confucian scholars during the Imperial China Period because they wanted to increase their influence. According to Professor Wen Yiduo, a 20th-century Chinese scholar, the Dragon Boat Festival actually originates from the tradition of dragon worship. The Dragon Boat Race symbolises the act of paying homage to the dragon, symbolic of active masculine energy in the world, while the zongzi was used as an offering of food to the Dragon King. Since the ancient Chinese were heavily dependent on agriculture for survival, weather played an important role. Dragons were said to have the ability to control the weather and therefore directly affected the state of agricultural productivity. Keeping the dragons happy ensured good weather, which in turn meant the survival of the local communities through good harvests. The dragon as a symbol was prevalent in both the states of Wu and Yue. According to Professor Wen Yiduo, the Dragon Boat Festival was most likely a custom unique to Wu and Yue, but gained popularity throughout the rest of China over the years.
Regardless of how and why the legends were promoted, the Dragon Boat Festival continues to thrive to this very day.
How the Festival was Adopted in Malaysia
Wherever the Chinese travelled (whether for trade, economic or other other reasons), they brought their culture and traditions with them. According to Malaysia’s Department of Statistics, the Chinese population between 2014 and 2016 was estimated to have been 23.4%. That is almost a quarter of the entire Malaysian population. It is not surprising then, that the Dragon Boat Festival is widely observed throughout the various communities in Malaysia that include descendants of Chinese immigrants.
The Malaysian government has embraced the Dragon Boat Festival as an important event that promotes racial harmony. The Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, a subsidiary of the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism and Culture, has included Dragon Boat Races in their Malaysia Events & Festivals publication. The Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board acknowledges the Dragon Boat Race as:
“…a team-focused sport, which promotes discipline, harmony, physical fitness and mental toughness… [and] an honoured sport that inculcates racial harmony.”
Cooking and Eating Glutinous Rice Balls
Traditional Chinese families gather together every year to make zongzi. In addition to holding, participating in, and watching Dragon Boat races, the Malaysian Chinese community celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival by making and eating zongzi. This tradition commemorates the time when villagers in ancient China threw rice balls into the river to pacify the dragon and river creatures in order to protect Minister Qu Yuan’s body.
Due to its popularity, zongzi has evolved from a simple rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves to include assorted fillings. In the past, zongzi could only be found during the Dragon Boat Festival. Today, zongzi can be found all year round in places with a considerable Chinese population. The shape of the zongzi can vary from place to place, but it is commonly made in the three-cornered shape. In a typical traditional Chinese family, making zongzi is a family affair. Everyone participates in the process. Although bamboo leaves are the most commonly used wrap, other leaves, such as maize, banana, and pandan, can also be used to wrap the rice balls. Each leaf imparts a different flavour and aroma to the dish.
Zongzi fillings may differ based on preference, but most of the time, glutinous rice, also known as sticky rice, is used. Wrapping the zongzi is an art in itself. Cooks are considered successful when the rice and contents stay intact while the zongzis are being boiled. Most of the time, the recipes and the skill of wrapping zongzi are passed down through the various generations in the family.
On the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival, traditional Chinese families offer the zongzi to their ancestors and deities as a show of respect before eating the zongzi themselves.
Zongzi is also popularly known as Chang in Malaysia. There are several types of Chang common in Malaysia:
- Bak Chang: Bak Chang usually contains pork meat with salted egg yolk, chestnut, dried shrimp, and mushroom, depending on preference. The rice is usually brown in colour.
- Kiam Tee Chang (Nyonya glutinous rice dumplings): Kiam Tee Chang is considered a Malaysian Chinese speciality. It usually contains minced pork and winter melon with five spice and pepper.
- Kee Chang: plain glutinous rice with alkaline water. It is usually eaten with sugar or syrup and is considered a dessert.
If you do not come from a family that gathers annually to make zongzi, you can still purchase this delicious delicacy. There are many places where you can buy them, however here is list of places known to be the best:
Ho Yoke Kee
This stall is located off Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur. The family who runs the stall has been in business since the 1960s.
No. 327 Jalan Hang Lekir
50000 Kuala Lumpur
Business hours: 7:00 – 22:00
Yook Tho Yin
This restaurant is located in Damansara Uptown, and they specialise in Cantonese cuisine. They sell small and large Cantonese-style dumplings. Their large dumplings weight almost a kilo each.
13 Jalan SS 21/37
Business hours: 10:30 – 15:00 & 18:00 – 23:00
Inside Imbi Market, there is a stall that has been run by three sisters for many years. They sell Cantonese Zong, plain Gan Shui Zong, and Nyonya dumplings.
12, 6, Jalan Kampung
55100 Kuala Lumpur
Business hours: 6:30 – 12:00
Noble Mansion sells premium zongzi filled with ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms and lingzhi.
1st Floor The Plaza at Jaya 33
1 Jalan Semangat, Seksyen 14
Business hours: 11:00-15:00 & 18:00 – 23:00
Participating in the Dragon Boat Race
According to Malaysia Events & Festivals 2016, Dragon Boat Races were held in the following places:
- Melaka – as part of Melaka River International Festival (25 May – 4 June 2016) and the Melaka International Dragon Boat Race (11 June 2016)
- Penang – as part of the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival (28-29 May 2016)
- Sabah – as part of the Sabah FCAS International Dragon Boat Race (21-22 June 2016)
- Putrajaya – as part of the Malaysian International Dragon Boat Race (25-26 September 2016>
- Sarawak – as part of the Sarawak International Dragon Boat Regatta (11-13 November 2016)
Since its inception, the Dragon Boat Race has evolved into a professional sport. The event is no longer restricted to the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Some of the Malaysian coordinators of Dragon Boat races, such as the Sarawak International Dragon Boat Regatta 2016, have explicitly declared that they abide by the rules and regulations of the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) and the Asian Dragon Boat Federation (ADBF), a subsidiary of the Olympic Council of Asia. According to the International Dragon Boat Federation, the Malaysia Dragon Boat Association has been registered as a basic member of this institution since 1991.
Dragon Boat Race Putrajaya – 300m 22 Crew Final 2016http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/DragonBoatRace.flv
Or view the video on the server at:
Preparation for the Dragon Boat Race
You need muscle strength and strong lungs in order to take part in Dragon Boat races. Participants are advised to train for strength and endurance so that their bodies are conditioned for the race and protected from injury.
Although each team can choose their own strategies in order to increase their chances of winning, the basic skills, such as team’s synchrony and the way they row the oars, are prerequisites. It is highly advisable that team members train together prior to the race itself. According to the Worldwide Dragon Boat Calendar website,
“[s]erious dragon boat racers train [all] year round, even in the coldest winter month.”
Fees, Registration, and Prizes
Fees and registration are based on 2016 figures and may change from time to time. The race participation fee ranges from RM150-RM300 per person. Prizes can come in the form of trophies, medals, and/or monetary gifts.
Accommodation for Participants
The Dragon Boat race usually lasts between four to five days, which includes registration, team meetings, training, and usually a two-day racing event, as well as a day reserved for sightseeing in the local area. Most of the time, the event organisers also arrange accommodation for the participants.
When practising for or participating in the Dragon Boat race, it is advisable to wear attire that does not absorb moisture, such as Dry Fit and Coolmax fabric. It is better to wear tight-fitting clothes as loose clothing can easily drag when wet.
Travel Document Requirements to Enter Malaysia
Visitors who wish to visit Malaysia should ensure that their passports are valid for at least six months before entering Malaysia. Citizens of ASEAN countries (i.e. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) can stay in Malaysia for up to 30 days without a visa.
Visitors from other nations can either apply for a visa in advance, pay RM330 for a Visa on Arrival (VOA) or are granted up to 90-days visitor permits on arrival. Check with your nearest Malaysian Embassy or online for visa requirements before travelling. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), India, Bangladesh, and Nepal are now eligible to apply for eVisa.
What to Wear in Malaysia
Malaysia is a tropical country, therefore most people wear clothing made from light and breathable fabrics. It is recommended to bring several lightweight tops, slacks, sunglasses, hat, sweaters, at least one scarf or shawl, as well as shorts, dresses, and skirts that come down to the knee. You can also consider bringing flats or comfortable shoes.
How to Get Around when You are in Malaysia
You can either charter a long-distance taxi that you can pay by the hour, or use the cheaper public transportation buses if you are in major cities. If you are in Kuala Lumpur, you can also use the Light Rail Transit (LRT) or the monorail system.
Those visiting Melaka, or Georgetown in Penang, can experience a more traditional mode of transportation with the bicycle rickshaws.
Where to Stay When You are in Malaysia
Getting a place to stay in Malaysia is relatively easy. There are many hotels, hostels, and inns, up for consideration. Visitors can try to search online and look at other people’s reviews before making a booking.
Several hotels in Penang to consider:
Bayview Hotel Georgetown
10200 George Town
Phone: +60 4-263 3161
Eastern & Oriental Hotel
10200 George Town
Phone: +60 4-222 2000
G Hotel Penang
168A, Persiaran Gurney
10250 George Town
Phone: +60 4-238 0000
Several hotels in Kuala Lumpur to consider:
Kampus Putrajaya University Tenaga Nasional, KM7
Phone: +60 3-8922 2088
Hotel Bangi Putrajaya
Off, Persiaran Bandar
43650 Bandar Baru Bangi
Phone: +60 3-8210 2222
Empress Hotel Sepang
Jalan ST 1c/7
Phone: +60 3-8706 7777
Several hotels along the Melaka river to consider:
Jalan Merdeka, Bandar Hilir
Phone: +60 6-284 1001
The Shore @ Malacca River
Kampung Bunga Paya Pantai
Phone: +60 6-282 2666
906 Riverside Hotel Malacca
52, Jalan Kampung Hulu
Phone: +60 6-282 8906
Sources of information:
- Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board (Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Malaysia); Malaysia Events & Festivals 2016; December 2015
For more interesting information:
- 25 Mouthwatering Dishes of Malaysia
- Thaipusam – The Festival of Lord Murugan
- Pilgrimage to Mount Wutai
- I Visited This Great Temple in Penang
- Why Malaysia?
- Must Visit Temple in Genting Highlands, Malaysia (Chin Swee)
- Kek Lok Tong Cave & Lost World in Ipoh
- Power Place: Jog Falls
- Plum Village
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma:
If you are in the United States, please note that your offerings and contributions are tax deductible. ~ the tsemrinpoche.com blog team