Dragon Boat Festival, or “Duan Wu Jie” in Mandarin Chinese, falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. This is usually around Mid-June on the Gregorian calendar. It is celebrated in Taiwan, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau.
Dragon boat racing on Love River in Kaohsiung, 2012
There are many theories as to the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival, but the most popular is the story of QuYuan （屈原）。QuYuan was a poet and political consultant for King Huai of Chu who reigned from 328–289 BCE. Legend has it that QuYuan was a loyal and patriotic consular who gave his total loyalty to the King. However, when King Huai began to criticize and slander QuYuan because of a policy disagreement, QuYuan is said to have fallen into a deep depression. He quit his post and could not accept the shame and humility of the situation. He is said to have jumped into the Miluo river to commit suicide.
When it was discovered what he had done, villagers rowed to the middle of the river to save him. Realizing it was too late, the villagers, in order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles, and they also threw rice into the water. This was not only a food offering to Qu Yuan's spirit but also used to distract the fish away from his body. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he died because he had taken himself under the river. Then, he asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. These 3 cornered sticky rice packs are wrapped in banana leaves today. Called “Zongzi”（粽子）, these snacks can be seen just about everywhere during this festival.
Dragon Boat Festival is usually a school/work holiday in Taiwan. On this day, cities and towns will hold markets and events that include dragon boat races, zongzi making, and standing an egg straight up and down on its “tip”. An egg can do this because of the position of the earth and moon on the Summer Solstice.
Nowadays, dragon boat racing has become a common event during/around the Summer Solstice in June. Dragon boat racing is even part of the World Games competition, held every four years. There is also an International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). http://www.idbf.org/
Dragon boats typically have 22 members aboard. 20 members are rowers (10 on each side) and paddle the boat in unison. However, some boats have 50 or even 80 rowers. They follow the beat of a drummer who stands center stern of the boat. There is also one crew member manning a rudder in the back to steer the boat. The pace and speed of the boat is set by the drummer and the paddlers row to the beat.
Dragon boaters power there boat in a straight line typically for 500 meters. Taiwan follows an old Song Dynasty method for determining the winner of a race. At the finish line, each lane has a buoy with a flag sticking out of the top of it. As the dragon boat approaches the finish line, and flag, the “flag runner” (which is an extra person in the boat) jumps up on the bow of the boat and stretches his/her arms and body to pluck the flag out of the buoy. This determines the winner of the race. The flag runner needs to be careful not miss the flag or the boat will be disqualified.
In Taiwan, most cities hold a dragon boat competition that may start several weeks in advance. The earlier races are elimination heats that lead up to the final day of competition. There are anywhere from 2-8 lanes of dragon boats racing at one time. Teams are divided by age, country, or even companies. The competition is fierce teams train for months in advance.