Dragon Boat Festival: a day for Chinese people to learn about epidemic prevention in ancient times

The Covid has plagued the world for nearly two years. During this pandemic, people understood a lot about public hygiene. Interestingly, The Dragon Boat Festive was a festival to teach the public about epidemic prevention.

Due to climatic reasons, southern China has a suitable environment for harmful insects, viruses, and germs to grow, especially in summer. The Dragon Boat Festival is in midsummer. Therefore, ancient people have serval customs to prevent epidemics, and the traditions still exist today.

The Dragon Boat Festival is also named as “Duanwu” Festival. “Duan” means the beginning, and “wu” is the pronunciation of five. “Duanwu” means the festival is on the fifth day of the fifth month. Most of the southern part of China is in the humid subtropical climate. In summer, the temperature is generally between 24 and 27 °C, and monsoons are well developed.

The frequent and heavy rain in summer makes the river rises high enough to paddle dragon boats but also cause natural disasters such as floods and landslides. Besides, humid and hot weather is ideal for harmful viruses and germs to grow. So, people called the fifth month the “unlucky’ month.

To prevent diseases, ancient Chinese burnt and hung wormwood and drank realgar wine. “Wormwood and realgar wine both are pure yang things in traditional Chinese medicine,” said Dr Zhenghua Zhang, former professor of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine.

Some people hang a brunch of wormwood at their front door, hoping it can drive evil spirit away

“Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the philosophy of yin and yang. We classify everything into yin and yang.”

According to Ancient Chinese philosophy, sun, heat, fire etc., are yang, while the moon, dark, water etc., are yin. Southern China is a place that holds too much water, so illnesses here are more likely caused by yin.

“Yin and yang balance each other. When we deal with diseases that are caused by yin, we use the medicine of yang. Wormwood and realgar are yang so that they can cure such illnesses.”

“In traditional Chinese medicine, we called all things that cause illnesses evils. The word ‘evil’ is not the same thing in superstition. It is said that wormwood can drive evil spirits away because it can cure and prevent diseases, and it also means it can improve the immune system,” said Dr Zhang.

As a natural herbal, wormwood is almost everywhere in China. It is a kind of Chinese medicine and a kind of food. During the festive period, people even make glutinous balls with wormwood.

“Wormwood has a strong smell and tastes a little bitter, and it is a natural repellent. We also use wormwood for acupuncture, which can enhance blood circulation.”

Realgar wine is a festive drink in some places in China. Some adults will draw a word of “king” on the forehead of children, which makes children’s faces look like tigers. They hope this symbol can make children strong enough during the unlucky month.

People draw the Chinese character of “tiger” on the forehead of children with Realgar wine

“Realgar is a strong poison, and you cannot buy in the pharmacy. It also has a strong smell. We use it to treat sores caused by inner body cold. People also use it to kill the virus in the air,” said Dr Zhang.

Realgar wine is consists of Chinese cereal wine (huangjiu, “yellow wine”) dosed with powdered realgar, a yellow-orange arsenic sulfide mineral.

In Dragon Boat Festival, people greet each other by saying ‘stay healthy in Dragon Boat Festival’ instead of ‘happy Dragon Boat Festival’ because they think it is inappropriate to be happy when bad luck comes.

Therefore, the beginning of the Dragon Boat Festival is for educating the public about epidemic prevention. The festive events of the festival are also different from other traditional festivals. Dragon boating, washing the body with herbals, collecting herbals from the mountains, burning and hanging wormwood and so on are all about enhancing immunity.

Those customs passed on to now. The suicide of patriotic poet Qu Yuan also has brought more sense of this festival. After that, zongzi become a symbolic food of the festival.

Zongzi, unlike other dragon boats festive food, has no function of curing diseases. It is just a food that is related to Qu Yuan. People dropped zongzi into the river, hoping fish eat them instead of the body of Qu Yuan. Although people no longer drop zongzi into the water anymore, it has become famous festive food.

Fengqin Lie, a woman in her 60s, lives in Shangji village of Guangzhou, has many years of experience of making zongzi.

“In past, because of food scarcity, we could only have zongzi in the festival, but now we can have zongzi every day, and there are more choices for the fillings than in the past.”

Zongzi is a snack with glutinous rice and delicious stuffing such as beans, pork, yolk, lotus seed etc. It is in a triangular pyramid shape, wrapped with bamboo or banana leaves. Although people across China will make zongzi at the festival, the flavours and shapes are different from province to province.

Nowadays, people can buy zongzi in shops, but before, zongzi was just made at home. Cooking zongzi needs at least 6 hours, and some people keep the fire overnight.

“When I was a child, like other children, I was always looking forward to the Dragon Boat Festival. I liked watching the fire overnight because I could play with other children. That was the most interesting entertainment,” said Fengqin.

Now Fengqin not only makes zongzi for her family, but she also sells zongzi. A friend of her daughter booked two dozen of zongzi.

Sticky rice, mung bean are the typical ingredients of zongzi. Other stuffing such as greasy pork, yolk, peanuts can be changed depends on different flavours. Also, zongzi usually has salt and sweet flavours.

“She wants salty egg yolk as the stuffing. You cannot choose the materials if you buy packed zongzi in shops. Some people think handmade zongzi is the original taste.” Before, people only made zongzi during the festive period. But now zongzi has been a daily snack.

Fengqin makes zongzi with banana leaves because she plants banana trees in her field.

“I collected these leaves a few days ago. I like using banana leaves. Of course, in this region, some people like bamboo leaves better. But I think banana leaves are larger than bamboo leaves, which is easier for me to wrap it.”

Making zongzi is very time-consuming work, often requiring more than a day from start to finish. All the ingredients need to be soaked overnight before being ready for wrapping.

Fengqin started by frying the bean with sugar. The sugar and hot temperature make the water come out from the bean, and the bean tastes sweet. The greasy pork should also be cooked. After all the ingredients were cool down, Fengqin started to wrap, which took hours to finish.

The last step is boiling zongzi. Fengqin’s husband started boiling the water when she was about to finish.

“Now we don’t boil the water with firewood, and honeycomb briquet is more convenient.” In the festive period, in Fengqi’s village, there will be many stoves with pots in front of houses or non the streets because many families are making zongzi to celebrate the festival.