The Chinese wear traditional clothing as part of the festivities. Photo: Peraza Forte, Iramsy

Beijing.- When Qu Yuan, Chinese poet and patriot of ancient times, learned that his kingdom had fallen into enemy hands, he threw himself into the Miluo River, with a rock in his arms. Living in exile after frustrated efforts to save his native Chu, the scholar offered his own life as a sacrifice to his homeland.

Legend has it that, on learning of the incident, the local fishermen organized expeditions in their boats, adorned with dragons, to search for the admired poet and try to save him. For days, they ploughed through the waters of this tributary of the Xiang River, and as Qu Yuan could not be rescued, they set about chasing away and feeding the fish with zongzi (glutinous rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves) in order to prevent them from eating his body.

During the Dragon Boat Festival, small boat races are held, with the symbolic mission of finding and rescuing the heroic ancient poet Qu Yuan. Photo: Isaura Diez

For the past 2,000 years, the Chinese people have commemorated this attempt to rescue Qu Yuan in a celebration known as Duanwu, or the Dragon Boat Festival.

This is one of the most important traditional festivals of the Asian giant, and is held each year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, which this 2017 coincides with May 30.

During the festivities, small boat races are held. Boats featuring a carved dragon head on their bow sail along the rivers of the country, with the symbolic mission of finding and saving the poet, considered one of China’s heroes.

Like all traditional ceremonies in this ancient nation, the Dragon Boat Festival is also accompanied by exquisite gastronomy and an emblematic dish: zongzi, the same steam-cooked rice balls that back in the year 278 BC the inhabitants of Chu, today the central province of Hubei, offered the fish to safeguard the corpse of the poet.

The ways of preparing and eating zongzi vary as much as the extensive geography of China. While in the north they tend to be made with sweet fillings like dates, red bean paste or dried fruit, to the south and in the coastal provinces, these glutinous balls are savory, usually filled with meat, mushrooms, fish, or seafood.

The celebration, which was included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, sees families gather and decorate their homes with drawings of five animals – snakes, scorpions, toads, centipedes, and lizards – to prevent these from entering their homes.

In addition, modern Chinese cities seem to go back in time, as many of their inhabitants attend the Duanwu cultural activities dressed in the Hanfu, a traditional Chinese garment, historically worn by the Han people more than three millennia ago.

To experience this national holiday, one of the many that take place in this Asian nation, which also represents the arrival of summer, not only allows one to witness the passion with which the Chinese remember this illustrious hero of their past, but also to verify that this is a country of legends, and that this mysticism nourishes its people.