History and Traditions of the Dragon Boat Festival

As we all already know, there are many Chinese traditional holidays and festivals which people all over the country celebrate every year. The most popular ones are Mid-Autumn FestivalChinese New Year and Spring Festival, Qing Ming Festival and Dragon Boat Festival. We have written about most of them already, so now it is time to discover the upcoming festival of Dragon Boats.

The first definition of the Dragon Boat Festival which might come to mind is that it is a day when a bunch of dragon-like looking boats are racing on the water. But this is just on the surface, having a history of more than two thousand years, this folk festival has a lot of traditions and customs. So, let’s have a closer look.

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The Dragon Boat Festival is called 端午节 (duān wǔ jié) in Chinese, and also known as Double Fifth Festival, because the celebration date falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Therefore, the date changes every year and in 2017, the official holiday will be on May 30th. Even though, nowadays, Dragon Boat Festival is one of the major holidays in China, it was recognized as a traditional and public holiday in the People’s Republic of China as late as 2008. You can find the 2017 holiday calendar here​, to know when exactly we are free from work and lessons 😉


Every holiday has it’s beginning, and although there are many theories on how the Dragon Boat Festival originated, the most famous legend refers to the memory of the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (屈原). According to one of the stories, Qu Yuan was a loyal minister of the Kingdom of Chu, and dedicated his whole life to helping the King build a strong State of Chu. Many times he referred to the King and the state to implement reforms against corruption, but he was slandered by jealous officials and was dismissed and exiled by the King. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a lot of poems, showing his love and patriotism for his country, as well as denouncing the corruption and greedy state representatives. Some of those poems are still very famous in China.


When the State of Qin captured the capital of of Chu, Qu Yuan could not take the fact of seeing his land defeated and committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. When the local people heard about it, they tried to rescue the poet, believing that Qu Yuan was an honourable man. In their boats, locals were desperately searching, but were not able to find Qu Yuan. After people lost any hope to find him alive, to save Qu Yuan’s body, people were throwing cooked rice into the river, hoping that the fish would eat the rice balls and not touch the body. And to save his soul from the evil spirits, to scare them away,  the locals were hitting the water with their paddles and beating big drums.


You might believe this legend or not, but this is where and how the Dragon Boat Festival started and people in China are still following similar traditions on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar calendar.

The biggest attraction and highlight of this festival, which is closely tied to the commemoration of Qu Yuan, is the Dragon Boat Race. It might not be real dragons, but that does not make this event any less impressive. A dragon boat is a human-powered wooden watercraft, shaped and decorated in the form of a dragon. Usually boats are 20-35 meters long and have 30-60 people on board with a drummer in the head of the dragon. But, of course, shapes, colours and sizes all vary, depending on the region.


Nowadays, the Dragon Boat racing tradition has spread all around the globe and has become very popular not only in Mainland China, but also in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.


What would any Chinese holiday be without its attending food customs? That’s right, not possible. In the morning of the festival, every family has to eat Zòng Zi (粽子) – to commemorate the poet Qu Yuan. As a part of the festival, Zòng Zi have become a symbol of this day, just like the dragon boats. They are a kind of sticky rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with a variety of different fillings (red beans, pork, peanuts, dates, etc.). Usually, they are steamed or boiled and prepared before the festival together by all family members. There is a special way to wrap Zòng Zi, you can try to make some by yourself, alone or with your friends, kids or family.


During every Dragon Boat Festival, many Chinese families follow the custom of wearing Incense Bags (or pouches) to avoid catching contagious diseases and to keep evil spirits away. These bags are made from colorful silk cloth and tied as decoration to children’s clothes.


Have you seen already calamus or wormwood leaves on the doors? This is another tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival meant to discourage disease and dispel the evil spirits.


There are also some special traditions, followed in different parts of China. For example, in the North, children wear a bracelet made of seven colored threads, and throw it into the rain water of the first rain after the Dragon Boat Festival; in the West of China, big trade fairs are held during the dragon boat races; the people of East China wash their eyes and faces with water mixed with burned magic papers, and then pour that water onto the road as a symbol of getting rid of disasters; in the South, people bathe in special water made from a hundred herbs to prevent scabies.


This year, there will be a celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival in Shenyang as well: “The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China Shenyang Chapter, together with the Publicity Department of the CPC Huanggu District Party Committee, Huanggu District Culture and Sports Bureau and Huanggu District Service Industry Bureau, is thrilled to invite you to the TOUCH of China-Dragon Boat Festival from 9:30 to 11:30, 21st May, 2017 at Huanggu District Cultural Arts Center, in the first floor lounge.” You can check more information on their official website.

Hope you enjoyed reading this article and found something new and interesting about this colourful festival. If so, please share it with people who may like it as well and follow us on Facebook, WeChat, Instagram, Twitter.

By Evgenia Kurz


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