Explainer: The Story Behind Dragon Boat Festival

By Cathy Wu, June 24, 2020

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The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

Dragon Boat Festival, aka ‘Duanwujie’ (端午节), is a traditional Chinese holiday that commemorates the life and death of the famous scholar and poet Qu Yuan, who lived during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty in around 300 BC. The festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar every year. This year, it falls on June 3.

History of Dragon Boat Festival

Qu Yuan
Image via Wikimedia Commons

According to Chinese folklore, Qu contributed a lot to society, having served in high offices. However, he fell out of favor with the emperor, was accused of treason and eventually sent into exile. During his time in exile, Qu wrote a lot of poetry. Unappreciated and unhappy, he drowned himself in the Miluo river on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar in 278 BC after the Qin state captured the Chu capital of Ying.

According to legend, the local villagers highly admired Qu. In an attempt to save him, or at least find his body, they raced out onto the river in boats – which is said to be the origin of dragon boat races.

Dragon Boat Races

Dragon Boat Festival
Image via Hsiung/Flickr

As the name indicates, the centerpiece of Dragon Boat Festival is the dragon boat race (龙舟赛, ‘long zhou sai). In many cities across China, dragon boat races are organized to mark the day.

READ MORE: Making and Racing Dragon Boats in the PRD

Zongzi: A Classic Holiday Treat

粽子
Image via lrs1108/Flickr

Legend has it that packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent the fish from eating Qu’s body. Gradually, people took to eating ‘zongzi (粽子), glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves, around this time each year. Popular fillings include egg yolk and meat, red beans and jujubes.

Zongzi
Image via Song Zhen/Flickr

A Time to Fend off Diseases

Booknews
Image via booknews/Flickr

According to Chinese tradition, people can easily come down with illness around Dragon Boat Festival, a warm season when bacteria and insects are most active. Because of this, many measures are taken to keep diseases at bay. Families often hang Ay Tsao, a wormwood-like herb with a potent odor, on their door. Some also drink wine as a tonic. Scented sachets stuffed with fragrant medicinal herbs are also popular.

Xiangbao
Image via bangdoll/Flickr


For more of The Explainer, click here.

This post originally appeared on Thatsmags.com in June 2016. It has been updated and republished on June 2, 2022.

[Cover image via Mainland Tour]

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