Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival in China

Rachel Weiss
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
Jun 6, 2019

On the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar every year China celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival. It has been celebrated in China for more than 2000 years but just recently became an official national holiday in 2008.

Traditionally called Duanwu Jie, the festival commemorates the life of the scholar and poet Qu Yuan. While it is celebrated nationwide in China, it is especially popular to celebrate in Southern China in the Guangdong, Jiangsu, Fujian, and Zhejiang provinces. 

The Story Behind the Dragon Boat Festival 

Chinese legend has it that the Dragon Boat Festival first began after the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC). Qu served in high offices in the Chu Royal House, but when the king decided to become allies with the Qin state, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. During his banishment, Qu wrote a great deal of poetry that he became famous for. After the Qin state captured the Chu capital, Qu Yuan was distraught and drowned himself in the Miluo River.

The local people loved Qu and raced out in boats to save him in the water. They couldn’t find his body but decided to drop balls of sticky rice into the river for the fish to eat instead of him. 

How Do People Celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in China?

The most popular Dragon Boat Festival traditions include eating zongzi and watching Dragon Boat races. These traditions stem from the people trying to save the poet Qu in their boats and dropping the sticky rice into the water for the fish to eat. These sticky rice balls became known as zongzi. Zongzi are a local Chinese specialty food made out of glutinous rice, stuffed with red beans, meat or other fillings, and wrapped in reed leaves. You’ll spot Chinese aunties making these in shops and selling them everywhere in the weeks leading up to the festival! You definitely need to try these.

A dragon boat is traditionally a human-powered boat that is brightly colored with lots of decorations. Depending on the length and size, the boat may have up to 80 rowers, as well as one team member who will beat a drum that the others will row in time to. These boats will compete in races in cities all around China, and there is usually a sacred ceremony performed before any competition in order to “bring the boat to life.” 

People will celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in other ways – drinking a special realgar wine (xionghuangjiu), hanging mugwort and calamus, playing games with family and friends, taking long walks, writing spells, hanging up paintings of the legendary Chinese exorcist Zhong Kui, and wearing perfumed medicine bags.

Best Places to Celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival

If you’re looking for somewhere to watch a Dragon Boat Race in China during the festival, here are a few of the best places to go:

  • Guangzhou Pearl River
  • Yueyang, Hunan Province
  •  Xixi National Wetland Park in Hangzhou China

Other great places join celebrations include the Hong Kong Victory Harbor, Lake Guipan in Foshan, and the Miluo River in Yueyang, the site of the Qu Yuan’s death. Many other cities in China will have special events for the festival, so even if you’re in a small city you’ll still find celebrations going on. And don’t worry if you’re traveling during the holiday and not sure where to go - you’ll definitely find ways to get involved. A hostel I stayed at one year had a Zongzi event where we could learn how to make them (and eat a lot afterwards!) 

So grab some zongzi, catch a dragon boat race, and enjoy the unique experience of celebrating a traditional Chinese festival.

For more information about the Dragon Boat Festival, check out Travel China Guide’s page here: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/essential/holidays/dragon-boat.htm 

Learn more about holidays and traveling in China with The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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