The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan [c. 340–278 BC] of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty.
Of course for most people, even in China, the origins are less well remembered. Nonetheless on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional Chinese calendar families and friends will gather and eat snacks, drink realgar wine [雄黃酒, xiónghuángjiǔ] and partake in the racing of dragon boats.
One snack most often consumed is Zòngzi [粽子], a sticky rice concoction wrapped up in bamboo leaves. Fillings vary, but along with glutinous rice other ingredients may include sweet red bean paste or savoury fillings such as shiitake mushrooms, salted duck egg, pork belly, shredded pork, chicken or other meats.
Many people will prepare such snacks at home, but it will be common to find them at market stalls.
As well as snacking, many people will also consume something known as realgar wine [雄黃酒, xiónghuángjiǔ]. The alcoholic drink contains reälgar which was once considered to be a universal antidote against poison in traditional Chinese medicine. Thus it was often used to protect against disease, snakes, and evil spirits.
Nowadays, its consumption is less common, and báijiǔ [白酒], a strong Chinese spirit usually made of sorghum, or beer is more likely to be drunk.
Another tradition is to hang special perfume pouches about the necks of children. Parents first sew little bags made from colourful silk cloth, and then fill the bags with perfumes or herbal medicines. The perfume pouches are said to be able to ward off evil spirits.
Dragon boat racing 赛龙舟 (sài lóng zhōu) is a particularly important part of the festival. Dragon-shaped boats, propelled at speed by several rowers to the accompaniment of rapid drum beating, take part in races along rivers or other stretches of water and attract thousands of onlookers.
This year’s festival will occur on the 2nd of June and, in China at least, events are likely to attract record numbers of people according to the People’s Daily.