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Enter the Dragon

THERE'S a raft of legends about the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on Thursday. It's about dragons, dumplings, a drowned poet, amulets, exorcists and a slug of arsenic wine. Wang Jie and Nie Xin report.

The familiar smell of zongzi (rice dumplings) is wafting over the city, reminding locals of the Dragon Boat Festival on Thursday. Falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the festival is also known as Duanwu or Double Fifth and its origins lie deep in ancient folk religion.

It occurs around the time of the summer solstice and is associated with warding off evil, disease and pestilence that come with warm weather.

There's a raft of legends about the Dragon Boat Festival, yet today most people think only of poet Qu Yuan and zongzi.

Qu was a patriotic minister who died on that day in 278 BC in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). He is said to have thrown himself into the Miluo River in despair when hearing that his kingdom had been defeated. His prediction of doom had come to pass as the emperor had ignored his sage advice to stand and fight the enemy.

Qu had been branded a traitor and banished, but he was beloved by the common people as he was honorable and fought corruption.

On hearing of Qu's death, fishing boats rushed to recover his body and people threw rice (today's zongzi) and eggs into the water in hopes that the water dragons and fish would eat them instead of the poet. There was a great commotion (today's firecrackers).

Throwing offerings of food into the water was also a common sacrifice to the dragons - the practice long predates the story of patriot Qu who was incorporated into the larger legend of dragons who bestowed blessings.

Thus arose the dragon boat races on that day, commemorating community spirit and respect for the dragon.

The tradition of eating rice dumplings wrapped in leaves continues. Zongzi is an indispensable part of the festival for many families.

Today's zongzi is steamed glutinous rice dumplings shaped in pyramids, wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with string. They may be stuffed with many ingredients, such as dates, pork, egg yoke, sweet red beans, mushrooms, walnuts, peanuts, pumpkin, and other things.

Rich, sweet or savory zongzi can be a quick breakfast or afternoon dim-sum snack, but some consider it greasy and distasteful.

"I dislike zongzi, especially when my mom urged me to eat it on the festival," recalls college student Lily Wu, in her 20s. "Just look at that sticky rice and meat - all those calories from one zongzi. If I eat one in the morning, I lose my appetite for the whole day."

But for most older people, zongzi is delicious.

"I don't know what those young people are thinking," says retired worker Chen Fengying who makes zongzi every year for her family and neighbors. It usually involves simmering and making a thick stew.

"It's our tradition and making it shows my love and care. My homemade zongzi tastes much better than those sold on the street," Chen says.

Besides dragon boat races and eating zongzi, there are other customs, of course, like firecrackers to scare off evil spirits.

Warding off evil is a major theme, but few people give it deep thought.

"I will hang ai ye (mugwort, a herb) on my front door," says Chen. The herbs are intended to ward off evil spirits and illness. Those with sharp leaves, thorns or pungent odor are best to fight off evil and toxins. Typically used are mugwort (wormwood) and sweet flag plant, which has sharp leaves giving the name "dragon-slaying plant." Garlic, too.

"Sounds a bit superstitious? Every year my daughter laughs at my behavior. But I don't mind. The old custom has lasted thousands of years," says Chen.

Many customs and rituals were associated with the Dragon Boat Festival in the old days. The fifth day of the fifth month was considered very unlucky. It falls near the summer solstice, a time of the year when warm weather traditionally brought disease and pestilence. Charms, talismans and potions were used for protection.

"Every year we sell ai ye during the festival period," says a middle-aged man selling vegetables downtown.

"All the buyers are older people, and sometimes young people ask me what ai ye is used for."

Apart from ai ye, Chinese people traditionally display pictures of Zhong Kui, the fierce exorcist god who grabs and eats ghosts and evil spirits.

They may also display at their front door pictures of the Five Poisons, or one of the five °?- centipede, snake, scorpion, toad and lizard, the so-called auspicious animals that ward off poison and evil.

Threads of the five colors - white, blue, yellow, red and green °?- are traditionally wrapped around children's wrists to ward off evil and illness in this period. Sometimes children were bathed in herbs.

Packets of herbs in colorfully stitched sachets were worn by young and old.

Colorful herb sachets are sold today.

Except for the zongzi, the traditions are fading rapidly.

One of the most interesting traditions was the drinking of a medicinal, toxin-expelling beverage xionghuang, realgar wine. Realgar is arsenic sulfide, a toxic (in large quantities), orange-red ore that was ground into powder and mixed with white spirit or wine. It is prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine (it expells toxins) and was made into pots and household ornaments so that its magical properties would always be around.

Realgar is known to pack a punch and produce hallucinations: it was widely believed to possess magical powers, largely due to the household story of "Legend of White Snake."

Although few Chinese people drink xiong huang any more, almost everyone knows about White Snake and her sad love story.

The beautiful snake-woman fell in love with a mortal, but disguised her serpent identity to her husband. But on Dragon Boat Festival, after drinking realgar, she was revealed to her husband to be a huge white serpent lying in bed. He died of fright.

It seems the magical power of xionghuang could even conquer a thousand-year-old sorceress.

"I used to sprinkle xionghuang in the four corners of my house to ward off evil or put a daub of orange powder on the foreheads of my kids for luck," says Chen, the retired worker.

"But I no longer maintain the ritual, because my family feels uncomfortable with my behavior," she says.

Christine Wu, a white-collar worker in her 30s, doesn't have time for lots of tradition.

"Due to the pressure of city life, I really don't want to add some old tradition to my list of daily chores," she says. "But buying zongzi is still on my list, it's a necessity like setting off firecrackers."

In Shanghai, those who want to get into the spirit of old-time celebrations, minus the Dragon Boats, can visit Yuyuan Garden or Yunnan Road. On offer are many types of zongzi and snacks, fragrant decorated herb sachets (xiang dai) and lots of arts and crafts.

It's also said that if you can balance a raw egg on its end on a flat surface at midday on the fesitval, then you will have good luck for the rest of the year. Marking folk culture Drag yourself out of Shanghai and celebrate an authentic Dragon Boat Festival in Jiaxing in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta. Eat zongi, drink wine. What's a Dragon Boat Festival without dragon boat races, zongzi dumplings, and raising a flagon to the dragon for good luck?

You can enjoy all these traditional pastimes - and an exuberant folk culture carnival - in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta in Jiaxing and its Nanhu or South Lake.

The city, near famous water towns Wuzhen and Xitang, is just 110 kilometers and an hour's drive from Shanghai.

The Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, was traditionally considered an unlucky day, at the beginning of summer when disease and pestilence arrived.

The dragon is central, as dragons live in the clouds and bless the earth with rain and fertility, especially important as rice seedlings are transplanted.

The festival also commemorates the death of patriotic poet and minister Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) during the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). Legend has it that Qu battled corruption and made many enemies among powerful officials, but was beloved by ordinary people.

For the Dragon Boat Festival on Thursday, a carnival will be held in Jiaxing on Nanhu Lake near Meiwan Old Street.

The old street retains the traditional look of the ancient water town with architecture of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The area was home to four noble families, the Xu, Shen, Chu and Huang.

Now the area combines tradition and modern entertainment. Along the lake, shops sell both traditional folk crafts and specialty goods.

Dragon boats will race on the lake. Dragon dances, lion dances, folk arts, crafts, music, dance, and local food are on the program.

Yueju Opera will be staged. Famous painters and calligraphers from Jiaxing and Shanghai will demonstrate their work.

Traditional snack foods include the famous Wu Fang Zhai zongzi, Nanhu water chestnuts, Tongxiang Sister-in-law Cake, Jiashan Eight Treasures Cake and other delights.

A couple - Chinese bride and Dutch bridegroom - will hold a very traditional wedding ceremony during the carnival.

"The couple will experience all the Chinese customs that are hardly seen in today's Chinese weddings," says Zhong Fulan, head of the Shanghai Folk Customs Association, one of the carnival organizers.

Everyone is welcome to attend.

The organizers will take more than 2,000 people from Shanghai to take part in the Jiaxing festival.

"We hope the trip will enhance the communication between Shanghai and Jiaxing and help Shanghai people learn more about Chinese customs of the Yangtze Delta region," says Zhong.

Six thousand years ago in the Neolithic Age, the early Majiabang civilization arose in the region.

The famous ancient water towns of Wuzhen and Xitang are both half an hour's drive from Jiaxing.

Other sites worth a trip include Jiulong Hill, Nanhu Lake and Nanbei Lake.

Jiulong Hill in Pinghu area is known for its pine woods, long lakeside beach, reef, unusual rock formations and ancient Buddhist temples and culture.

South Lake, which lies south of Jiaxing, was famous in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) for its natural landscape, which includes a small islet.

The lake also witnessed the birth of Communist Party of China, as the CPC was officially founded during a boat meeting in 1921.

Nanbei Lake (meaining south and north) is a reservoir built near seaside lagoons and its sights include beautiful pavilions.

Jiaxing was the birthplace to many figures in Chinese culture. They include scholar Wang Guowei (1877-1927), calligrapher and poet Shen Zengzhi (1850-1922), novelist and journalist Shen Yanbing (1896-1981), better known by his pen name Mao Dun; and romantic poet Xu Zhimo (1896-1931), a major figure in the New Culture Movement.

How to get there:

By car - Take highways A9-A5-A8, get off at Jiaxing Pinghu exit.


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