The Custom of Dragon Boat Festival

The Custom of Dragon Boat Festival

dragon boat festival title

Dragon Boat Festival, regarded with similar significance as other Chinese festivals like Spring Festival, Tomb-Sweeping Day and Mid-Autumn Day, is a very important day to Han people in China and the history of this traditional festival dates back to 2000 years ago.

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Dragon Boat Festival is also known as Duanwu Festival, Calamus Festival and Chongwu Festival. The festival occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar of China, that’s why it is also known as Double Fifth Festival. The festival usually falls in June of the western calendar. This year of 2010, the festival falls on 16th of June.

There are plenty of folk activities on this day and the focus of the celebrations includes eating the rice dumpling-zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats.

History & Legend of the Dragon Boat Festival


There are various versions about the origin of the Double-fifth Festival, and at least ten different ones were sorted out by scholars, among which the most influential version is to reminisce about Qu Yuan (屈原, BC340-BC278).

It is said that Qu Yuan was a poet and a minister in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period (BC475-BC221). At first he won the full confidence and respect of his sovereign, King Huai of the Chu State. But later the king was surrounded by jealous self-seekers, so he ignored Qu Yuan’s advice that the State of Chu ought to unite with the state of Qi to fight against the state of Qin.

As a result, King Huai was tricked into the State of Qin and died there. King Qingxiang of Chu, the eldest son of King Huai, didn’t take revenge.  Instead, he dismissed Qu Yuan from office and sent him into exile as a vagrant. Later the capital of Chu was captured by the troops from Qin. In great agony, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River (汨罗江, located in today’s Hunan province) with his wishes to save his beloved country unfulfilled.

Qu Yuan
Qu Yuan, a poet and political advisor in ancient China, which the origin and history of Dragon Boat Festival is based upon.

The legend claims that the day when Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river was the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The local people rushed in boats to rescue or search for him. Some of them threw bamboo tubes with rice and other food inside into the river, hoping to feed fish and shrimps lest they should eat away his body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi (rice dumpling).

An old doctor of traditional Chinese Medicine poured the realgar wine into the river to make river dragons drunk, otherwise they would hurt Qu Yuan. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.

Customs & Activities of Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon boat racing is one of the main highlights during the Dragon Boat Festival. This competition is very popular all over China especially in the south.

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Dragon boat racing is a popular traditional sport during the festival

A dragon boat is a human-powered boat traditionally made of teak wood to various designs and sizes: from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers, up to the massive traditional boats which can have a capacity of 50 paddlers. It is a long, slim, dragon-like canoe and is often brightly painted and decorated with designs of Chinese dragon heads and tails. The crew use single bladed paddles to drive the boat forward, a method of propulsion common to many other paddled water craft around the world. Every boat usually has one drummer or caller at the bow facing towards the paddlers, and one sweep or helmsman at the rear of the boat.

The Custom of Dragon Boat Festival

A dragon boat race usually cover distances over 200m or 250m, 500m, 1000m and 2000m. Before the race starts there is also a series of ceremonies such as worship and awakening the dragon. A fierce battle among the competitors was ignited the moment the competition starts. Bursts of percussion and the cheering from viewers heat the atmosphere up rapidly.


During the sprint, the drummer leads the paddlers throughout a race using the rhythmic drum beat to indicate the frequency and synchronicity of all the paddlers’ strokes (that is, the cadence, picking up or accelerating the pace, slowing the rate, etc.) The drummer may issue commands to the crew through a combination of hand signals and voice calls, and also generally exhorts the crew to perform at their peak. The drummer may be considered the “heartbeat” of the dragon boat.

Nowadays, dragon boat racing is a worldwide sport. Modern dragon boat racing is organised at an international level by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). IDBF International Standard Racing Boat has a Crew of 22, consisting of 20 paddlers, one Drummer and a Helm (Steerer).

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Dragon boat racing has since become an Internationally practised sport

dragon boat race

Eating zongzi


Eating zongzi is an essential activity of the Dragon Boat Festival. This kind of traditional Chinese food is made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves.


It is said that as early as the Spring and Autumn Period(BC 770- BC 476),the earliest form of zongzi: Tongzong(筒粽) and Jiaoshu(角黍) came into existence. The former was made of rice in the bamboo tubes while the latter was made of the broomcorn millet wrapped in leaves in cow-horn shapes. With the evolution over many dynasties, Zongzi is seen in various shapes with a variety of fillings.

The shape of zongzi ranges from being relatively tetrahedral in southern Chinese to cylindrical in northern Chinese. Wrapping a zongzi neatly is a skill which is passed down through families, as are the recipes.

The many types and flavours of zongzi

Zongzi comes in many types and flavours. The more traditional ones includes savoury rice dumpling with fillings like meat, mushroom, salted eggs and nuts. The sweeter versions may have red bean or a plain rice dumpling which is usually dipped in honey or sugar before every bite.

Different fillings give the dumpling different tastes. Mung beans, red bean paste, jujubes, Chinese sausage, red-cooked pork, dried shrimp, dark’s egg yolk and so on are very common ingredients in zongzi recipe.

While making a zongzi with red-cooked pork filling, the glutinous rice in the recipe is commonly dipped in soy sauce beforehand making the zongzi tastier, complimenting the filling better and giving it its distinctive brownish color.

Zongzi need to be steamed or boiled for several minutes depending on how the rice is made prior to adding the fillings. Usually, 20 minutes will be sufficient. Once cooked, the zongzi can easily be frozen for later consumption. While Zongzi is a daily food product that is available in many Chinese markets throughout the year, during this Dragon Boat Festival, Zongzi becomes very popular. Being synonymous with the festival, many families will buy or even home-make Zongzi as part of a Chinese tradition.

Standing the egg

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An interesting and fun custom during this festival is to make eggs ‘stand up’.

In the Lunar Calendar, June is the ‘Horse month’, while the ‘Horse hour’ is from 11:00 AM to 13:00 PM. The Dragon Boat festival being in June, it is traditionally believed that you will be lucky for the coming year if you can make an egg standing up during Horse hour on day of the festival. It is said that it will be easier to make an egg stand up at noon.

standing eggs

This feat seemed quite a phenomenon and people looked for the scientific explanation. It seems an egg can stay ‘standing up’ because the Dragon Boat Festival is close to the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. The summer solstice occurs when the Earth’s axis tilts the most toward the sun, causing the sun to be farthest north at noon. During the day and especially at noon, the gravitation between sun and earth pulling at each other are the strongest, hence explaining the phenomenon.

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Try making an egg stand during the noon of Dragon Boat Festival! It may amuse you and your friend and bring you good luck for the coming year!

The Balmy Bag

balmy bag02Children often hang a small balmy bag on their necks on this day. It‘s believed that if you carry the small spice balmy bag around with you, it not only drives away evil spirits but also brings fortune and happiness to those who wear it.

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The small bags are hand-made by local craftsmen. They‘re made with colourful silk, fine satin or cotton. Figures of animals, flowers and fruits are often embroidered onto the bags and inside are mixed Chinese herbal medicines which send out the charming flavour.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival !

In recent years, the Dragon Boat Festival has been restored in China as an official national holiday. 14th, 15th, 16th in June are the holidays in 2010. If you have a chance to tour around China during then, join us in the fun!

happy dragon boat festival

Learn Some Mandarin

习俗 xí sú custom n.
龙舟 lóng zhōu dragon boat n.
竞赛 jìng sài competition n.
船桨 chuán jiǎng paddle n.

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