A Sustainable Dragonboat Festival
June 10, 2021
The 5th day of the 5th month in the Lunar Calendar marks the celebration of the traditional Chinese holiday known as Tuen Ng/ Duan Wu (端午节 / 端午節). It's also known as the Double Fifth Festival, and it's marked by the eating of rice dumplings (zongzi) which are wrapped in bamboo leaves. In pre-pandemic years, the festival is most commonly marked by the rhythmic sounds of drums as crowds gather to watch the dragon boat races.
This year., the Dragon Boat Festival will be on June 14th, and while this year's celebrations will very likely be a much more muted affair, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to see how we can make some minor changes to how the festival is celebrated to make it more sustainable.
Before that, here's the 101 on the Double Fifth.
History & Cultural Background
While there are a few origin stories, the most famous is the legend of Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE). He was a patriotic poet and a high-ranking official from the Chu state who dedicated his life to making his home state stronger. He lived during the tumultuous period which saw 7 states in constant war to take over neighboring lands and riches.
After being slandered by jealous court officials and accused of treason, the King dismissed and exiled Qu Yuan. When the Qin State forces conquered the capital of the Chu State, Qu Yuan felt great despair and drowned himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month.
When word spread of Qu Yuan's suicide, the local people rowed out to the river to search for his body but were unsuccessful. In a bid to preserve his body, the locals rowed their boats up and down the river, hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare away evil spirits. They threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish, in the hopes that they would leave Qu Yuan's body untouched.
Customs & Practices
1. Eating Zongzi (Chinese sticky rice dumplings)
Zongzi is made of sticky rice filled with variety of ingredients such as pork, chestnuts, egg yolk, and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. While making and eating these dumplings were seen as a way to commemorate Qu Yuan, it's becoming commonplace for these dumplings to be gifted to relatives and friends during this festival.
2. Dragon Boat racing
From the traditional origins, dragon boat racing is now seen as a sporting activity and races are now organized in many parts of the world. Standard dragon boats are usually made of teak, spanning a length of around 12 meters which can accommodate 20 crew members and a drummer who provides the rhythmic pace of the rowers.
It is said that if you can make an egg balance at noon of the festival day, you will be blessed with good luck for the upcoming year. This tradition originated from Southern China, and it has caught on in the United States during Springtime.
While we can try to convince you that using natural vines is better than raffia to bind the dumplings, or that dragon boats should be made from recycled wood and eco-friendly paints, we have some easier ways to make your Dragonboat Festival more sustainable.
Sustainable celebration ideas
1. Eating Zongzi (Chinese sticky rice dumplings)
A study conducted by the Oxford University showed that producing 1 kg of pork can result in up to 7kg of carbon emission released into the atmosphere. If the population of Taiwan (~23 million) reduces their intake of pork by 100 grams during this festival, there could be a reduction of up to 1,610 tons of carbon emission. So, if you ate fewer dumplings or opt for the vegetarian option – where beans replace meat – you will be doing something positive for the environment.
2. Less snacks or fast foods
It's pretty common to grab a fast-food meal or snack when we are watching sporting events, such as, say, dragon boat races. There have been studies which show that a fast-food meal can produce up to 0.48kg of carbon emission. If everyone in Taiwan (population ~23 million) has one less one fast-food meal on the Double Fifth Festival, there works out to be approximately 11,000 tons of carbon emission in total.
3. Using public transportation (*Covid-19 safety protocol notwithstanding)
In Taipei City, the roads can get busy during festival season. Most people will drive from their homes to the dragon boat venue at the riverside, and a round trip comes up to 12 km. Based on this driving & carbon emission calculation, driving 1 km releases 120g of cardon dioxide into the atmosphere.
If the approximately 1 million households in Taipei City opted to take public transport instead of driving to the dragon boat races, that can prevent an additional 1,440 tons of carbon dioxide emission produced.
For good measure, those leaves from the dumplings can also be composted or used as natural fertilizers. However, as you can see from the above examples, it doesn't take a lot to make choices which help toward a bigger sustainable goal.