Chinese Dragon Boat Festival – a Reunion (June 14, 2021)

What a contrast for the celebration of this year’s Chinese Dragon Boat Festival to that of last year’s! My old classmates from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music whom I hadn’t seen for more than 30 years came to visit, I decided that we celebrate the “Dragon Boat Festival” when they were in town. Along with the Southern California local old conservatory friends, we gathered in our garden to have a vivacious reunion. What a magnificent feeling that we reminisced the fond memories together. In our student years, the unique mixed sound of practicing instruments coming out of every window of each piano room permeated the entire campus throughout the day until the midnight. It was so much fun that we ate together at the long tables in the cafeteria, making jokes and sharing stories. We were avid learners to absorb knowledges as much as we could because China was just opened up to the West after 30 years of isolation. We knew that the threshold of being accepted by this prestigious music institute was so high since we were chosen from a pool of thousands candidates after the end of 10-year long Cultural Revolution.

It was such a special night, among us: pianist, musicologist, ethnomusicologist, trombonist, composers. In the middle of wafting aroma of from the big pot of steaming “zongzi” (a traditional Chinese rice dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves (generally of the species Indocalamus tessellatus), or sometimes with reed or other large flat leaves. They are cooked by steaming or boiling). We were nostalgic! 🥂🍻🍹🍯🧉🍷🍾🍸

There were more than a dozen dishes tonight, including several authentic Chinese traditional delicacies made by my sister-in-law Min, such as rice wine soaked edamame, Shanghai styled “four treasured sponge tofu”, jellyfish salad, smoked chicken, etc. I had been stewing the “Yanduxian” (a very popular soup along the Yangtze River made from preserved ham, fresh pork, bamboo shoots, tofu knots and baby bok choy) all afternoon. Additionally I made crabmeat gingered scramble eggs, shredded porks sautéed with green peppers and Zha Cai (pickled mustard greens), thousand-year-old eggs with silky tofu and many many more.

The most beautiful and glamorous item was the multiple fruit and chestnut cake brought by our exquisite pianist friend Violette. This gigantic cake could serve for at least 50 people.

This year’s Dragon Boat Festival is worth celebrating! Fifty eight percent of Californians have been vaccinated, and the epidemic cases have dropped sharply day by day.

Somehow, I particularly love this Chinese folk song entitled Wuxi Jing (Beautiful Scenes from Wuxi), because this folk tune came from Wuxi that was adjacent to Shanghai where I grew up. The dialect was distinguishably different from that of in north. It was very softly spoken. In this video clip the singer sang this melodious song with delicious regional flavors. There is a famous Chinese proverb: 每逢佳节倍思亲, i.e. “During every holiday season, you will miss your family more than ever”. All the good memories during my childhood came back. Shanghai is a cosmopolitan metropolis with people from all over the places in China. My father was a Wuhan boy and my mother was a “Wannan girl” (Southern Anhui Province Girl). They fell in love at first sight when they were students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and then gave births to my brother, me and my sister in Shanghai. During my childhood, the scenes of “Dragon Boat Festival” were so vivid. I remember that every family in our alley was busy with soaking glutinous rice, washing corn leaves, choosing good pieces of pork, soaking red beans and dates during the Dragon Boat Festival. It was so much fun! Elderly people wove bracelets with colorful silk threads and put them on children’s wrists. We wore necklaces made from delicate small sachets filled with 艾草,Ai Cao (a kind of herb), which was said to be used to drive poison and ward off evil spirits.

Here is my version of Beautiful Scenes from Wuxi, from my 7-movement Episodes During the Plagued Summer (duet for flute and piano)

Joan Huang: Episodes During the Plagued Summer (1)

Last year, during the quarantine, it was also my spring cleaning time. I was sorting out my old stuff, which was a time of being nostalgic. I remembered the scene of making “Zongzi” when I was a child, and the vendors were chanting on the streets and alleys and selling their fragrant sachets. I happened to see a diary I wrote when I was a composition student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1982. We went a rural village in Xiangxi (west Hunan Province) to learn the folk songs from the local farmer. That was our assignment of doing “field work” (like Bartok did in Hungary. It happened to be during the “Dragon Boat Festival”. What a great opportunity to observe the organic scenes of local Tujia, Miao, and Han people celebrating the festive: bustling markets, making rice dumplings, commemorating the death of the Chinese poet and politician Qu Yuan (who committed suicide) by the river, dragon boat racing, and so on.

Here’s an excerpt from my diary:

“Today is the Dragon Boat Festival. Early in the morning, the Miao people wore colorful festive costumes, carrying bamboo baskets, and their faces were full of joys. We followed the hustle and bustle of people into the farmer’s market. Several Tujia peasants improvised joyful folk tunes for us: suonas blowing, gongs hitting and cymbals crashing. Their indigenous and simple performance immediately inspired us. We hurried to Fenghuang County. There were crowds of people on the streets singing and dancing, the sound of firecrackers was everywhere .”

That was such a unique education and an eye-opening experience. As young composers, we Han people drew a lot of essence from ethnic minorities in China. I discovered that the ethnic minorities’ folk music was the most characteristic: gliding sound, melodies with embellish tones, rising and falling singing style etc., simple and unpretentious, it was so natural and human.

Here is the 4th movement of my Along the River During the Qingming Festival from my album which I wrote 6 years ago, “Main Gate”, the movement depicted the lively atmosphere of the farmer’s market:

Despite it has been 35 years since I came to the United States, I am still a Chinese woman who pays a great deal of attention to all traditional Chinese festivals. Perhaps it is the continuation of my maternal grandmother (who was extremely hospitable)’s genes and life styles. Each year I always celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival with my brother’s family, my cousin, relatives, and childhood friends. The animal floats in our swimming pool are our symbolic dragon boats.

Many years ago, Bill did buy a plastic dragon boat for his grandkids. They were indeed riding on the “dragon boat”, buoyant, happily enjoying themselves.

The Dragon Boat Festival has an indissoluble bond with Chinese literature. There are many great books describing the festival. The well known Chinese writer Shen Congwen’s novel Border Town is among the best. The book captures the ideas of rural China through the moving story of a young woman named Cuicui and her grandfather. In the book, Shen described the “Dragon Boat Festival”. The characters are so natural and unpretentious. The Dragon Boat Festival is the fertile soil for the growth of love.

On Dragon Boat Festival, Shen Congwen wrote: “The most lively days of the year where the border city is located are the Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year. How these 3 festivals have excited the people of this small town 30 to 50 years ago, until now, nothing has changed much. The most meaningful days to be the residents of this special place.”…”Local women and children, all wearing new clothes, painted a king character with realgar dipped in wine on their foreheads. Good sentences, excerpts and descriptions of the Dragon Boat Festival were seen everywhere”…”About at 11 o’clock in the morning, the village of Quan Chadong people had an early lunch. After the meal, the whole family went out to the river and watched the race of boating. If you had acquaintances by the bank of the river, you could go to the entrance of the Diaojiaolou (literally means hanging attic which is a residential house with a dense architectural flavor of the ethnic minority in the southwestern provinces.”… “By the bank of the river, on the piers, people were watching dragon-boat race.”…”Sitting in the middle of the boat were the people who were beating drums and hitting gongs, they were synchronizing with the paddling rhythms of oarsmen.”…”Coupled with the cheering of people on both banks of the river,”… “After the boat race, the head chief of the village, in order to add the joy to the festival, He sent soldiers to put 30 large green-headed long-necked drakes with red cloth slivers tied around their necks and put them into the river, then people jumped into the water to chase the ducks. Whoever caught a duck, he or she would become the owner of this duck.”

Early summer is the most beautiful time of the year. Although it lacks the colorful blooming of spring, it has her own green charm. Sitting under the grape vines dressed pergola above our garden, the beautiful view is in front of us. Not too bad, we’re staycation! The summer vegetables in my vegetable garden are beginning to “blooming”, and some have already bear fruit. The mixed scent of the basil, rosemary, lemongrass, pepper mint in the herbal garden hits our nostrils, each breeze would waft pollen in the air.  The summer night in Southern California is blessed because it is dry and there are almost no mosquitoes in the garden. You can enjoy the coolness while looking at the stars .

The Dragon Boat Festival is the “Poet’s Day” because it commemorates the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan. There is no poet in the world who has such a grand festival as his own, let alone a poet who has been receiving such a grand memorial service from the people all over the country since 200 years ago.” (From Gai Guoliang’s book entitled Festivals)

even I, an oversea Chinese who have left China 35 years ago, have never missed once for such an important traditional Chinese festival.

Here is the folk ballad about the Dragon Boat Festival:

“On the 5th of May, it’s Duanyang.
Ai Cao hung in the door, and the fragrance is full.
Eating rice dumplings and sprinkling sugar.
The dragon boat was launched into the river ecstatically. “

(*Ai Cao tastes bitter and smells pleasantly intense. It is often burned to fumigate acupuncture points and warm the body meridians.)

I can’t find “ai cao” here, I pick a handful of lavenders instead. Finally, I’m ending my blog with a song from my hometown Shanghai entitled Shanghai Ballad.

Published by Joan Huang

I'm a freelance composer living in bucolic Altadena, the suburb of Los Angeles. Besides music making, I love cooking, drinking wines with friends, gardening, hiking and traveling.

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