Dragon Boat Festival: Amazing History and Traditions

Painting of the Dragon Boat Festival Performance

Dragon Boat Festival performance, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). (Image: Metropolitan Museum via Public Domain)

The Duan Wu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival), like most Chinese festivals, is based on generation-old legends. These festivals are celebrated not just for enjoyment, but for the preservation of traditional culture and heritage.

Chinese people have always regarded themselves as the descendants of the dragon. The actual origin of the festival is most likely a ceremony for worshipping the dragon. Chinese dragons are those heavenly dragons, not the fire-breathing ones from the West. Rice treats were originally offerings for the dragon and racing dragon boats was part of the ritual as well.

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water splashing action shot of dragon boat racing lots of bright color clothing
These days, the most well-known aspect of the Dragon Boat Festival is the tradition of racing dragon boats. (Image: Guanliang Huo via Dreamstime)

Duan Wu is an important festival for Chinese people and is celebrated throughout many Asian countries. It falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in the traditional Chinese calendar. This year, it falls on June 14. Traditionally, boats were made of teak wood from the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong.

Dragon Boat Festival origins

Dragon boat racing is thought to have started around 2,000 years ago in China. The festival originated during the Warring States period in China and there are a few versions of its origin.

Poet Qu Yuan.
One version of the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

1. To commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan was a resident of the Chu state during the warring period. According to the annals of Shi Ji, he was a minister for Emperor Huai. He served the nation whole-heartedly and advocated an alliance with other states to counter the Qin state, but was bad-mouthed and set up by Zi Lan’s gang of the aristocratic tribe.

He was exiled to the region of Yuan and Xiang. During his exile, Qu Yuan composed some heart-felt and influential poems on the stability of the nation and the livelihood of the people. The Qin later conquered the Chu. Qu Yuan was heartbroken and despaired. With his last verse written on the fifth of May, he drowned himself by holding onto a big boulder in the Yu Luo River, demonstrating his patriotic heart by taking his own life.

The Chu people were saddened and all ran to the river to pay their respects to Qu Yuan. Fishermen tried to find his body, but could not. In order not to let the fish eat his body, one of the fishermen threw rice and eggs into the river that he had offered to Qu Yuan’s spirit. Others followed.

A doctor poured strong wine into the river to intoxicate all monsters and habitants of the river. Being afraid that a monster might eat the rice, people threw in rice wrapped in chinaberry leaves with colorful strings, which later symbolized the rice dumplings with which the festival is celebrated today.

2. To commemorate the dutiful daughter Cao E of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Cao E was a resident of Shang Yu from the Eastern Han Dynasty. Her father drowned in a river, but the body was nowhere to be found. Cao E was only 14. She cried all day and night along the river. Seventeen days had passed; it was the fifth of May. Cao E jumped into the river. Five days later, she came up with her father’s body. This story became a legend.

The county officials ordered a stele to be made to record and praise her. People built a Cao E temple at the spot where she jumped into the river in memory of her virtuous duty. They renamed the village where she lived Cao E Village and the river in which her father drowned the Cao E River.

3. Origin from the ceremonial totem of the ancient Yue tribe

Recent archaeological finds have unearthed earthenware with geometric patterns along the middle lower Yangtze River, concluded to be from the ancient Bai Yue tribe. They saw themselves as the offspring of the dragon, and the Dragon Boat Festival was to pay their respects to their ancestors.
Earthenware from the ancient Bai Yue tribe. They saw themselves as the offspring of the dragon, and the Dragon Boat Festival was to pay their respects to their ancestors. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeological finds have unearthed earthenware suggesting the existence of a cultural heritage dating from the New Stone Age, along the middle-lower Chang Jiang River (also known as the Yangtze River). These pieces of pottery were decorated with geometric patterns. It was deduced that it was a site occupied by a tribe that worshipped dragon totems, namely the historical Bai Yue tribe.

The Bai Yue tribe lived along the river. They saw themselves as the offspring of the dragon. They used a lot of chalcolithic tools made of stone and copper, the most unusual piece being the 3-legged geometric-patterned earthen cooking vessel that was unique to the Bei Yue tribe. The tribe survived into the Qin and Han dynasties. Duan Wu was a festival they set up to pay their respects to their ancestors.

During these historic thousand years, most of the Bai Yue people assimilated into the Han tribe. The remainder became the southern minority groups. Since then, Duan Wu has become a festival for all.

Traditional foods

Zongzi / Rice Dumplings

In the past, people would wrap millet into bamboo or leaves, and this then became Zongzi or the Rice Dumplings that we know today. Now it is made with glutinous rice with sweet or savory fillings.

Owl Soup

Owls were considered unlucky birds in China and during the Han Dynasty people believed eating owl soups could repel evil spirits.

Glutinous Balls

During the Tang Dynasty, women and children would play a game involving shooting arrows at rice treats such as glutinous balls. Those who shot the arrow into one of the rice balls could eat it. Because they were small and sticky, it was not as easy as it seems.

Zongzi - traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival. Glutinous rice wrapped in leaves.
Zongzi is the traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival. (Image: via Pixabay)

Warding off evil spirits and illness in the Fifth Month

Another name for the Dragon Boat Festival is the Double Fifth Festival. Traditionally, the fifth lunar month was considered to be an unlucky time. As winter was ending, all the five poisonous animals were said to have come out from hibernation — centipedes, poisonous snakes, scorpions, lizards, and toads. And people were prone to falling ill.

So over the years, various traditions emerged around this time to help expel evil spirits, protect one’s health, and get rid of any bad luck during the dreaded Double Fifth. 

A custom around this time is to collect herbs and put them in small satchels to carry around that will ward off evil spirits.
A custom around this time is to collect herbs and put them in small satchels to carry around that will ward off evil spirits. (Image: Wen Wang via Dreamstime)

Drinking realgar wine

Drinking realgar wine was seen as an antidote to poison in ancient times.

The use of herbs

Hanging medicinal herbs on the door, such as Chinese mugwort and calamus leaves, taking baths with medicinal herbs, and also gathering them were popular activities. Some people would put these herbs into little pouches and carry them around. The five plants known to be used around this time were calamus (rushes or sedges), Chinese mugwort, pomegranate blossoms, garlic, and the morning star lily.

Hanging medicinal herbs on the door to ward of evil spirits
Hanging medicinal herbs on the door to ward off evil spirits. ‘Duanyang Gushi Tu,’ by artist Xu Yang. (Image: via Public Domain)

Braided silk threads

No matter how old you are, everyone will put braided silk threads on your arms on this day. They are made of the 5 colored threads of red, yellow, black, white, and (blue or green). Each thread represents one of the five elements — water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. It was believed wearing this charm would keep bad spirits and diseases away.

Dragon boat racing

The last activity is Dragon Boat Racing — hence, the name Dragon Boat festival. Take a look at this rare video of Dragon boat racing in the 1930s.

This footage was taken in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbor circa 1937 during the Duan Wu Festival. It gives a glimpse into history and captures the thrill of the race. These traditional festivals often are a time to connect with family, pay respect to the divine, look back, reflect, and start anew.

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