Boats and Tamales

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The Dragon Boat Festival: It’s among the most colorful traditions of the season that celebrate our relationship with water.

There are many stories regarding the festival’s origin, but the most popular is of Qu Yuan, a minister during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). Tucson Chinese Cultural Center History Committee chair Robin Blackwood explains:

At that time, China was fragmented, with various feudal states at war with each other, trying to create their own kingdoms. Qu Yuan was a minister to the Chu ruler. A wise and articulate man, he was loved by the common people. He fought corruption in the court and earned the envy and fear of other officials. Eventually these officials convinced the Chu ruler to have him exiled. He traveled and reputedly wrote some of China’s greatest poetry. But he was despondent about the political situation. When he heard that Chu had been defeated by Qin, he fell into despair and drowned himself in the Miluo River in present-day Hunan Province.

Because he was so loved, fishermen rushed out in long boats, beating drums to scare the fish away and throwing packets of rice into the water to feed the fish so they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body.

Over time, these spontaneous actions by the people led to the Dragon Boat races and the eating of zongzi, a glutinous rice ball with fillings, wrapped in bamboo (or other) leaves.

Dragon Boats are generally brightly painted and decorated canoes, which can be 40-100 feet long, their heads shaped like dragons, and their sterns sporting a scaley tail. They are rowed by up to 80 people, and the team includes a drummer, in homage to the origins of the story. Before a dragon boat enters a competition, it may be ‘brought to life’ by painting on its eyes, a traditional act with a long history in China.”

In Tucson, Robin continues, as in other communities with a Chinese community, commemorating this festival is an important part of the year, falling in importance only after Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn (Autumn Moon) Festivals. Locally, says Robin, zongzi are called Chinese tamales, and are made by groups of people in get-togethers not unlike tamalerias. The senior program at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center makes and sells 800-1000 zongzi. Preparations for the “zong-ziria” begin 45 days in advance.

Dragon boats are balloon-powered.
Boats are balloon-powered, photo courtesy Tucson Chinese Cultural Center.

Tucson’s versions of the festival have a different twist, according to Robin: “Because Tucson is a desert environment, Dragon Boat racing is challenging. The Tucson Chinese Cultural Center keeps this tradition alive in a family-friendly way with its youth Dragon Boat races, designed to save water!”

Robin provides some photos of how the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center conducts its Dragon Boat races. The little boats are balloon-powered and are raced in slots of water.

Dragon boats or zongzi are raced in slots of water.
Racing in slots, photo courtesy Tucson Chinese Cultural Center.


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