dragonboat festival

The Dragon Boat Festival – All the History, Customs, Activities You Must Know

So The Dragon Boat Festival. It’s just a day where you have bunch of boats that look like dragons and you race them, right?

Wrong! There’s actually so much more history and tradition behind this holiday, especially now that was officially recognized as a public holiday in 2008.

In case you’re not totally up to speed on the customs or how this holiday even started, here’s a basic crash course on the whats, whens and whys of this festival so you can celebrate properly this year on June 12th.

Opening Up the History Books

The Dragon Boat Festival is called 端午节 (duān wǔ jié) in Chinese. It falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar, therefore, it changes every year.

Though there are many theories on how this holiday originated, the most popular one is that of patriotic poet Qu Yuan (屈原) and his suicide in 278 BCE during the Warring States Period in China. Qu Yuan was from the State of Chu (one of seven states) who was exiled by the King.

In exile, he wrote many famous poems, including Li Sao, reflecting the love and passion he had for his country. It was when another state, the State of Qin, captured the capital of of Chu that Qu Yuan drown himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month. He was protesting the corruption of that era, refusing to see his country occupied and conquered by the State of Qin.

The people who admired and respected him from the village paddled out in their boats to look for his body in the river. They also threw in rice wrapped in bamboo leaves (粽子 – zòng zi) to feed the fish. This way, the fish would eat the rice instead of Qu Yuan’s body.

Later, the people kept throwing in the 粽子 on the fifth day of the fifth month as a way of paying their respects to the poet. This is where and how the Dragon Boat Festival, sometimes called Poet’s Day (since Qu Yuan was a poet) started.

Customs, Traditions and Activities Today

Besides the obvious, dragon boat racing from the name of the festival, during this holiday there are also other popular activities.

The main food during this celebration is 粽子! This delicious food is basically glutinous rice stuffed with a variety of different fillings (red beans, pork, peanuts, dates, etc.) and wrapped in bamboo. Usually, they are steamed or boiled. Here’s how to wrap the 粽子.


Drinking realgar wine is another common activity during this festival. The Chinese believed that realgar was an antidote for all kinds of poisons. This is why drinking realgar wine would be the most effective way to drive away evil spirits.


Many people will also wear perfume, scented medicine pouches. These pouches are made from colorful silk cloth and tied as decoration to children’s clothes. These pouches are supposed to protect the children from evil.


Other activities include: hanging mugwort leaves and calamus to discourage disease, taking long walks as well as trying to stand an egg up at exactly noon. If one is successful in having the egg stand up on its tip, they will have good luck in the coming year.

One interesting household legend that many know about this festival is the romantic tale of the white snake turing into a maiden, going to West Lake in Hangzhou and falling in love with Xu Xian (许仙). You can check out this bilingual story here.

Dragon Boat Racing Competitions

The official governing organization over this sport is the International Dragon Boat Federation.  The dragon boat racing competitions are held not only in China but all around the world. This year, the IDBF Championships are going to be held in Szeged, Hungary.

Typically, the boats are shaped like dragons since the Chinese believed that dragons ruled over the rivers, lakes and other bodies of water.

The race is usually a kind of sprint, ranging only a few hundred meters (typically 500 meters long). However, there are also long distance endurance races, the Guinness World record being 227 kilometers (relay race) held by the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Association.

The contemporary boat has 22 people, 20 paddlers, one drummer and one steerer at the rear of the boat; however, traditionally, there could be an upwards of 50 or more people in a boat.

Top 3 Must Know Words

1. 赛龙舟(sài lóng zhōu): dragon boat racing; racing dragon boats

2. 粽子 (zòng zi): zongzi; glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves with a variety of fillings (here’s a cool video on how to cook them)

3. 诗人节 (shī rén jiē): Poet’s Day   Hope that was helpful, happy celebrating 端午节!

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2 Responses to The Dragon Boat Festival – All the History, Customs, Activities You Must Know

  1. Markku Lehikoinen June 5, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Very well written. I’m just surprised, how little there are texts in Chinese here. Or is it that I do not know where to look? A tandem Chinese text would help to get closer to the culture.

    • Christina June 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      Thank you Markuu. I was writing this for not only Chinese learners but those that have an interest in understanding more about Chinese culture and this specific holiday (and may not be able to read Chinese yet).

      If you want more Chinese example sentences and information you can check out some of these links:
      1. This interesting article is about how other countries eat 粽子
      2. This article is about dragon boat racing with this example sentence “赛龙舟是中国民间传统水上体育娱乐项目.”

      I hope that’s helpful!

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