The Dragon Boat Festival is one of China’s most colorful and fascinating cultural events. Although its exact origins are steeped in mystery, it is a celebration that’s bursting with cultural traditions and symbolism that are over 2,000 years old.
The significant public holiday (held on June 14 in 2021) is a much-loved event that commemorates the death of one of China’s most prominent poets and political activists, Qu Yuan. While adults and children alike enjoy the festival, it’s a good idea for foreigners living in China with kids in international schools in China to learn as much as they can about it so that their families can join in on the festivities too.
The legendary origin of China’s Dragon Boat Festival
Local legend has it that Qu Yuan was an immensely patriotic poet who lived during the 3rd century BC in what is now the Hubei Province. He was advisor to the ruler, had grandiose dreams for the Chu dynasty, yet made many an enemy due to his intellectual prowess. After being falsely accused of conspiracy by corrupt and envious officials, he was summarily sent into exile south of the Yangtze River.
Out of despair for his fate and that of his beloved land, Yuan committed suicide, allegedly tying a heavy boulder around his neck and diving into the Miluo River, in what is today the Hunan Province. Local villagers, desperate to save him, raced their boats into the river, taking rice dumplings along for the ride in the hope they’d appease the river demons and keep the fish from devouring Qu Yuan’s body.
Their valiant efforts, although unsuccessful, are believed to have been the impetus for what is now one of China’s longest-held cultural traditions: dragon boat racing.
Most Chinese believe that the Dragon Boat Festival started as a way to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, although there are at least two alternative legends that hold water, at least in a few specific regions of the country. Unfortunately, given the first biography of Qu Yuan’s life was written almost 100 years after his fateful last swim, much of the original story (and even Qu Yuan’s very existence) remains largely unverified.
Despite the lack of concrete proof of the festival’s origins and the fact that various provinces boast their own distinct traditions for celebrating it, they are all similarly steeped in superstition dating back thousands of years.
Everything about the Dragon Boat Festival held on the unluckiest day of the unluckiest month in the Chinese lunar year is done to appease evil spirits and keep natural disasters at bay.
The Dragon Boat Festival is held all over China but is particularly revered in the southern regions, where Qu Yuan is said to have lived in exile. Interestingly, hybrid versions of the event are also held in neighboring southern countries, which share a similar cultural heritage.
The Most Popular Traditions Of The Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon Boat Races – Intense and competitive dragon boat races are the festival’s major highlight. Competitors race in traditional canoes that are shaped and carved to resemble dragons, all vibrantly painted. Scholars believe that both the canoes and the racing tradition surfaced in southern China about 2,500 years ago. The canoes are lavishly decorated and, nowadays, made from high-tech carbon fiber, making them slice through the water in record time. Teams can be quite large – every canoe holds between 20 and 30 rowers and always includes a drummer. Considered the symbolic ‘heartbeat’ of the dragon, the drummer is the one who keeps the rowers’ pace during the race, instructing them to slow down or pick up speed in unison with every beat of the drum.
Zongzi – The festival’s most revered and traditional culinary delight is a delicious sticky rice dumpling (sweet, savory, or a little of both) that is usually steamed wrapped in bamboo leaves. The zongzi represent the rice dumplings offered by the villagers who tried to save Qu Yuan. Although every province in China will boast its own traditional foods during their own version of the Dragon Boat Festival, these are by far the most universal foodie treat you will find served.
Symbolic amulets – Good luck charms play a huge role in Dragon Boat Festivals; all meant to keep away evil spirits and ensure a fruitful, healthy, and prosperous year ahead. From incense bags hung around necks (to ward off plagues, of course) to wormwood and calamus hung above door frames, and even beautiful silk braided bracelets which children wear on their wrists, amulets are there to repel bad luck.
Realgar Wine – Rice wine is an ever-present guest at every important event in China. Still, this specific version, made with realgar (an arsenic sulfide mineral, of all things), is an alcoholic delicacy that’s reserved for Dragon Boat Festivals. Long considered a repellent and poison antidote in traditional Chinese medicine, realgar can be poisonous if not concocted correctly, so make sure you try Xiong Huang wine from reputable producers. When in doubt, opt to drink plum wine instead and use realgar wine as a topical insect repellent. It works a treat!
Although dragon boat racing is one of China’s oldest traditions, it’s interesting to note that the dedicated Dragon Boat Festival was only declared a public holiday event in 2007. This fascinating (and very delicious) cultural festival is one of the country’s most symbolic and was the first event of its kind in China to be inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage list by UNESCO in 2009.