China’s Dragon Boat Festival: A Celebration of Culture, History, and Tradition

The Dragon Boat Festival, known as Duanwu Festival (端午节) in Chinese, is a traditional holiday celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. This festival, rich in cultural heritage and history, is observed with a variety of customs and activities that reflect China’s deep-rooted traditions and community spirit. The festival commemorates the life and death of the famous Chinese scholar Qu Yuan and is marked by dragon boat races, the eating of zongzi (rice dumplings), and other festivities.

Historical Significance

The Legend of Qu Yuan and the Dragon Boat Festival- Qu Yuan atop a dragon boat

The origins of the Dragon Boat Festival date back over 2,000 years to the Warring States period (475-221 BC). It is widely believed to commemorate Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC), a loyal minister and poet of the State of Chu. Qu Yuan was known for his patriotism and contributions to Chinese literature. However, he fell out of favor with the king and was exiled. In despair over the corruption and political strife in his country, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.

According to legend, the local people, who admired Qu Yuan, rushed out in their boats to save him or retrieve his body. They beat drums to scare away fish and threw rice into the water to distract sea creatures from eating Qu Yuan’s body. This act of remembrance evolved into the dragon boat races and the custom of eating zongzi during the festival.

The Story of Qu Yuan: A Tale of Patriotism and Tragedy


Dragon Boat Races

Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon boat racing is the most iconic activity of the Dragon Boat Festival. These races are not only competitive sports but also deeply symbolic. The boats, usually decorated to resemble dragons, are long and narrow, accommodating teams of paddlers, drummers, and a steersperson. The races symbolize the villagers’ attempt to save Qu Yuan and have become a vibrant display of teamwork and cultural pride.

The races are accompanied by the beating of drums, which sets the rhythm for the paddlers and adds to the festive atmosphere. The dragon boats themselves are often elaborately decorated with dragon heads and tails, and their vibrant colors enhance the visual spectacle of the event.

Zongzi: The Traditional Delicacy

The Dragon Boat Festival rice dumplings

Eating zongzi, pyramid-shaped glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, is another essential part of the Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi comes in various flavors and fillings, depending on the region. Common fillings include sweet red bean paste, dates, chestnuts, as well as savory fillings like marinated pork, salted egg yolk, and mushrooms.

The practice of making and eating zongzi is linked to the legend of Qu Yuan. It is said that the local people threw rice into the river to distract fish from his body, and over time, this ritual evolved into the tradition of making zongzi. Today, families and communities gather to prepare and enjoy zongzi together, celebrating unity and tradition.

Other Festive Traditions

In addition to dragon boat races and eating zongzi, several other customs and traditions are observed during the Dragon Boat Festival:

  • Hanging Mugwort and Calamus: People hang bundles of mugwort and calamus (a type of reed) on their doors to ward off evil spirits and diseases. These plants are believed to have protective and medicinal properties.
  • Wearing Perfumed Sachets: Children often wear colorful sachets filled with fragrant herbs and spices. These sachets are believed to protect them from evil and bring good luck.
  • Drinking Realgar Wine: In some regions, people drink realgar wine, a type of Chinese liquor believed to repel insects and ward off evil spirits. It is also said to have medicinal properties.
  • Balancing Egg: A less widespread but intriguing tradition involves trying to balance eggs at noon. Successfully balancing an egg is believed to bring good luck for the year.
  • Performing Dragon Dances: In some areas, dragon and lion dances are performed to celebrate the festival. These performances are vibrant displays of cultural heritage and community spirit.

Contemporary Celebrations and Cultural Significance

Dragon Boat and crew with UNESCO Cultural Heritage List logo

The Dragon Boat Festival has evolved over time, blending ancient customs with contemporary practices. It is celebrated not only in China but also in various countries with significant Chinese communities, such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan. The festival has also gained international recognition, with dragon boat races held in many countries around the world.

In 2009, the Dragon Boat Festival was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognition highlights the festival’s cultural significance and the need to preserve its traditions.

The Dragon Boat Festival serves as a reminder of the importance of cultural heritage, community, and collective memory. It brings people together to honor the past, celebrate the present, and look forward to the future. Whether through the thrill of dragon boat racing, the taste of zongzi, or the various other customs, the festival continues to be a vibrant and cherished part of Chinese cultural life.


The Dragon Boat Festival is a multifaceted celebration that encapsulates the rich tapestry of Chinese culture and history. Through its various customs and activities, it honors the memory of Qu Yuan, promotes community spirit, and preserves ancient traditions. As the festival continues to evolve, it remains a vital part of China’s cultural heritage, celebrated with enthusiasm and reverence both within China and around the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *