The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar and this year will be held on June 22. Popular in Southern China, the Dragon Boat Festival is an international event drawing a score of locals and tourists alike. To the outsider, the festival appears to be about racing dragon-shaped boats or, about ‘zongzi’ — the sweet-savory dumpling traditionally associated with the day. Not many people know that the Dragon Boat Festival is in fact a homage to a beloved poet who lived over 2,000 years ago. The festival originated as a search for his body.
History of Dragon Boat Festival
History and lore offer several competing theories on the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival. The stories involve a mix of everything — dragons, loyalty, spirits, and of course, food. Out of all these legends, one remains the most popular and widely accepted as the true origin story — the story of Qu-Yuan.
The Dragon Boat Festival is over 2,000 years old. Many people believe the festival began during the period of the Warring States and, in particular, with Qu Yuan. Yuan was a decorated state official and patriotic poet. He was of noble birth and served in several high offices — most notably as the advisor of the Kingdom of Chu. Yuan made it his life mission to make the kingdom of Chu stronger. Yuan advised the Chu king to form alliances with the state of Qi — one of the seven warring kingdoms then. The goal was to defeat the state of Qin which was the most powerful among the seven states. Jealous officials in the court dismissed his advice, going as far as to accuse Qu Yuan of treason. Soon after, the king dismissed Yuan from his duties and sent him into exile.
During exile, Yuan wrote beautiful poems about his country — verses that sang praises of China and its beauty. But dark clouds loomed on the horizon for the kingdom when the Qin state conquered the Chu capital. A distraught Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. It was the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The grieving people of Chu set out in their boats to search for his body, but to no avail. They rowed their boats up and down the river, continually beating drums and hitting the water with paddles to scare evil spirits away. Legend has it that they threw rice balls into the river so the fish would have food and keep Yuan’s body intact. The story explains why the main elements of Dragon Boat festivities today are wooden boat races and eating sticky-rice balls or zongzi.
Dragon Boat Festival timeline
Qu Yuan is born in China’s Hubei Province.
The Qin State begins intensive military campaigns against six other states — Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, Chu, and Qi.
Qu Yuan’s most enduring poem uses allegory to describe his anguish with the Chu king.
The search for Qu Yuan’s body sparks a new tradition and festival.
Dragon Boat Festival FAQs
What does the dragon boat symbolize?
Dragon boats have religious and ceremonial purposes, usually to please the rain gods. The paddles represent a dragon’s claws while drumming mimics its heartbeat.
Why do people drink realgar wine during the Dragon Boat Festival
It is believed that realgar is an antidote for all poisons, and effective for killing insects and driving away evil spirits.
How fast do dragon boats go?
Top crews can paddle the boats at speeds of more than 12 miles per hour
Dragon Boat Festival Activities
Balance an egg on its end
Legend says that you can balance an egg on its end at midday during the festival. Those who succeed will have luck in the new year.
Ward off the evil eye
Do as the Chinese do and wear a ‘Xiang Bao.’ This is a perfumed sachet believed to keep evil spirits away and bring good luck.
Watch the races
Dragon boat racing is an international event. If you want to watch the races, Taiwan and Hong Kong are ideal. There’s always a race on in any of the major cities.
5 Intriguing Facts About Taiwan
Small in size yet densely populated
Taiwan has 23 million residents but is the size of Belgium.
Marriage among gays is legal
In 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to give the nod to gay marriages.
Musical garbage trucks
Garbage trucks play loud music so everyone knows when to gather trash and bring it out to the street.
Stinky tofu is the national dish
Stinky tofu is tofu marinated in shrimp and vegetable brine for six months.
Ongoing tales of warring countries
Before the Portuguese discovered Taiwan, the Chinese referred to it as ‘a mudball across the sea, not worthy of China.’
Why We Love Dragon Boat Festival
We get to participate in boat races
Not just any boat race. The boats go up to 100 feet in length, with the front shaped like open-mouthed dragons. Every boat can have up to 80 rowers.
We get to sample delicious food
It’s not a celebration until you bring out the delicious zongzi. Zongzi is a glutinous rice ball with a sweet or savory filling wrapped in banana leaves.
It celebrates resurgence and life
The festival may have dark origins, but narratives and meaning change over time. The Dragon Boat festival today is a celebration of life instead.
Dragon Boat Festival dates