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First Day-off for Dragon Boat Festival Helps Revive Tradition

Beijing office worker Li Bingshuang celebrated the annual traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival, on Sunday, by rowing a boat with friends and having a picnic at the well-known Summer Palace.

On the rented boat at the park which ancient emperors and royal families used to enjoy play, Li and friends chatted and played cards under the summer sunshine.

"As ancestors commemorated the existence of a very famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan on the day by performing dragon boating and making zongzi, we do similar activities to observe the day," said the 26-year-old who had spent hours to prepare the picnic food. This included zongzi, pyramid-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

Li said she felt at ease to plan the holiday as in all, she had three days off for the festival. "It has been long time for me not to stop to smell the flower and completely relax myself."

National holiday for first time

Previously, Li worked over the festival day as most Chinese did, especially when the day fell on weekdays; there had been no day off allowed on one of the most important traditional occasions of the nation.

On December 16, the State Council, China's Cabinet, revised the nation's official holiday schedule to add three traditional festivals -- "Tomb-Sweeping Day," "Dragon Boat Festival" and "Mid-Autumn Festival" -- in response to public demand. It also changed the length of other holidays.

"We have time to celebrate now, or at least have time to ponder what the festival means, and in what way we observe it," Li told Xinhua.

Like most of China's post-1980's generation, Li has been more attracted to the modern society than toward traditional ideas.

She only learned about the festival from school textbooks and in her more than 20 years of life, she never celebrated such an occasion except by eating zongzi bought from the supermarket.

But this year, she made the zongzi together with her friends. "We have time this year due to the holiday," she said.

The Dragon Boat Festival, named after the traditional activities for the holiday, is observed in many other East Asian nations as well.

People usually eat zongzi, drink wine and race dragon boats.

Traditionally, the day commemorated the anniversary of the death of patriotic poet Qu Yuan, a minister during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). Out of despair, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River in central Hunan Province after his nation was conquered.

Local people felt so grieved that they threw wrapped rice balls into the river nearly immediately to feed the fish so that his body would not be eaten by them.

Locals were said to use reed leaves grown by the river as covers to wrap the glutinous rice balls.

Boats were also paddled out to scare the fish away so that Qu's body could be retrieved. This was believed to be the origin of dragon boat racing.

Folklorist Ji Lianhai said there were other meanings behind the festival as well. Traditionally, Chinese considered themselves as offspring of dragons, and the festival was created as a means of communication with Chinese ancestor, such as the dragon boat and zongzi presented to the imaginary animal.

As the festival ushered in a hot summer, people invented many ways to prevent diseases, such as drinking realgar wine. "The day should also be made as an occasion to spread knowledge of the traditional Chinese medicine," Ji added.

At present, he said, the nation attached much importance to the value of patriotism embodied in poet Qu and called for carrying on his spirit of safeguarding national interests when the country faces disaster. Ji suggested that communities should hold more activities for people to be aware of the holiday and let the one-day off become more meaningful.

Cherishing traditions

Kiran Gautam, managing editor of the "Naya Nepal Post," told Xinhua via e-mail that to revive traditions more younger generations of people should be involved in preserving culture.

"Culture always unites people," Gautam said, adding the Dragon Boat Festival was typical of China, a country which had a long history of more than 5,000 years, and that it should be well protected.

Sometimes people could not know more about a traditional festival until they got a national holiday for it, he said.

"The new holiday measure will surely encourage young generations to celebrate the festival and understand the unknown culture and history behind it and past it on to the next generation," Gautam said.

After watching a dragon boat race years ago in Hong Kong, David Jones, managing editor of "The Washington Times," was impressed to see the way that "a very old tradition had been retained and incorporated into the life of such a modern and progressive society".

Learning the story of why the eye was painted onto the dragon boat helped him to understand better the traditions of Chinese culture, said Jones via e-mail, adding he hoped the holiday would help to reinvigorate the festival.

"As globalization tends to make everything in the world more the same, it is important to preserve these traditions that make each society unique," he said.

Korean people are more nostalgic as the Republic of Korea (ROK) successfully registered the festival with UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage in 2004, prior to China.

Chen Qinjian, a professor of the East China Normal University, said the traditions of the festival were much better protected in ROK, and Chinese began to be more aware of tradition preservation recently.

Hunan Province has proposed to apply for the UNESCO status for the Chinese traditions of the festival and the birthplace of poet Qu.

"The research work for the application is going to be enormous, but that helps the nation to cherish traditions," said Chen.

(Xinhua News Agency June 8, 2008)

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