Traditions of the Dragon Boat Festival

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The Dragon Boat Races are a traditional summer event throughout Asia. Popularity is growing around the world, and spectators flock to see the fun and excitement. (Image: Marc Dalmulder via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Dragon Boat Festival (端午節)is a traditional Chinese holiday that dates back almost 2,000 years. According to folklore, the weather is expected to be volatile up until the Dragon Boat Festival. A popular saying advises, “don’t put away winter clothing till the Dragon Boat Festival.” After the Dragon Boat Festival, one can rely on warm weather.

Origin

The Dragon Boat Festival started during the Warring States period after the death of Qu Yuan (屈原, 340–278 B.C.), one of China’s earliest poets and prime minister of the state of Chu. At the time, Chu was threatened by the neighboring kingdom of Qin, which was intent on conquering all China.

Qu Yuan actively worked toward preventing his country from falling to Qin domination; however, he faced strong opposition from Chu aristocrats, many of whom had been bribed by Qin agents. Eventually, even the king of Chu turned against him, and Qu was forced to return to his home region as an exile. He stayed there for years, hoping that the nation’s leaders would come to their senses. But when Qu Yuan learned that Chu’s capital had fallen to Qin, he committed suicide by weighing down his robes with rocks and sinking himself in the Miluo River.

A girl looks at the Zongzi modeling of sachet during the annual Dragon Boat Festival in Pitan, New Taipei city on June 23, A girl looks at scented sachets in the shape of Zongzi during the annual Dragon Boat Festival in Pitan, New Taipei city on June 23, 2012. Traditionally this was a time to ward off bad spirits. Now it is more of a tribute to Qu Yuan, an ancient Chinese poet who drowned himself in a river to show his determination to oppose the corruption of the imperial court. (Image: Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

The local people were moved by Qu Yuan’s patriotic sentiments. They made sticky rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves and threw them into the river to feed the fish, in hopes that they would not eat the poet’s body. 

Later, the custom of wrapping rice dumplings, or zongzi (粽子), every year on May 5 of the Chinese lunar calendar, (the day Qu Yuan threw himself into the river) was introduced. This day is called the Dragon Boat Festival, and this year it falls on June 14 of the Gregorian (Western) calendar. According to legend, some people wanted to find Qu Yuan, so they rowed a boat on the Miluo River in search of his body. This evolved into the custom of rowing dragon boats, and eventually racing them.

Traditional customs

May in the lunar calendar signals the arrival of hot weather. Mosquitoes and flies multiply, spreading bacteria and infectious diseases.  It was once considered to be a time of misfortune, giving the fifth lunar month a reputation as the “Month of Evil” or “Month of Toxins.” By the time of the Dragon Boat Festival, the heat is at its peak, and pestilence runs rampant. The Chinese people adopted several customs to ward off bad luck and summon good fortune.

These customs include making zongzi, hanging up medicinal herbs, dragon boat races, and wearing scented sachets.

zongzi
Chinese rice dumplings, known as zongzi. (Image: Ketchuptomyfries via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

1. Making rice dumplings (zongzi)

During the festival, people typically eat zongzi, a dish made from sticky rice with different fillings, wrapped in banana leaves to form a pyramid-shaped packet. In the Northern regions of China, people tend to eat sweet zongzi with red beans and dried jujube paste inside. In the southern parts of China, zongzi is often filled with fatty pork and a paste made from mung beans.

2. Dragon Boat racing

The Dragon boat race has become a very popular competition. A sport for building physical strength and team spirit, it is now practiced in more than 50 countries, with an estimated 50 million active dragon boat paddlers in the world. Watching dragon boat races is good outdoor entertainment for the public.

3. Hanging bundles of herbs 

Mugwort is a fragrant medicinal herb typically hung in doorways to ward off evil spirits and maintain health. (Image: NatureShutterbug via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Today’s Dragon Boat Festival can be said to be partly derived from the traditional Chinese health festival, where ancients used herbs such as sweet flag (Acorus calamus) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris L.) to repel toxins. In fact, because every household would hang sweet flag up to drive away evil, Dragon Boat Festival is also known as “Pu Festival(蒲節).”

Mugwort embodies “inviting a hundred blessings.” It is an herb that can cure illnesses and is inserted at the door to keep people healthy. Because of its medicinal functions, mugwort is legendary for warding off evil spirits.

4. Wearing scented sachets

Scented sachets are a kind of auspicious amulet to ward off evil spirits. Various colors of silk cloth are made into capsules, and stuffed with dried herbs. These colourful and fragrant ornaments often feature intricate embroidery to welcome good fortune and ensure a long and healthy life. In the past, sewing scented sachets was a very common task for young girls. Nowadays, you can see various shapes of scented sachets being sold in stores and on the street. Every Dragon Boat Festival, people all over the world shop for them.

Everyone can enjoy the spirit of Dragon Boat Festival. Even if you don’t have the actual boating event nearby, making a scented sachet or eating delicious zongzi can be fun family activities that are both educational and enriching. 

  • Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.