If you attend the Dragon Boat Festival this summer expecting the flying, fire-breathing creatures from the Game of Thrones, then you’re in for a bit of a shock. The dragons of ancient Chinese mythology differ significantly than the ones described in fantasy novels. Chinese dragons are generally depicted as long, scaled creatures, without wings and with five claws on each foot. And they’re not associated with fire or hoarding gold. For millennia, the mythical beast has been “the controller of the rain, the river, the sea, and all other kinds of water” according to Dr. Deming An, a professor of folklore in Beijing.1
Traditionally, the Dragon Boat Festival has been celebrated to ward off evil and disease. There are many superstitions about how to prevent this, such as wearing bags of incense or hanging plants such as wormwood on doors. However, these superstitions are not widely practiced in the cities any longer…
Two traditions have endured over the centuries and are observed across regions: dragon boat racing and eating zongzi, sticky rice snacks. Join us as we explore this traditional Chinese holiday.
Dragon Boat Festival: History and Folklore
The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. This means it usually falls in May or June. For this holiday, people will have a three-day break from work and school. It is also known as the Duanwu Jie Festival in Chinese. In 2019, the festival is on Friday June 7th, and workers in China will have 3 days off from Friday June 7th to Sunday June 9th.
This holiday has been celebrated for over 2,000 years, but only recently has it become an official holiday in China. In 2009, it became a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Other Asian countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan celebrate variations of this festival as well.
Like many ancient festivals, its origins may come from the harvest and agriculture. May and June are the months for planting rice. People prayed to dragons to protect their farms and ensure a good harvest because they controlled the rains. Another historical explanation is that dragon boat races began as a military exercise in Chu, now present-day Hubei province.2 These exercises took place in the 5th month when the river levels were the highest.
However, a traditional Chinese holiday is not without stories and myths. The most well-known origin story of the Dragon Boat Festival is about the poet Qu Yang. He lived in Chu during a tumultuous time in Chinese history. He was a loyal advisor to the Chu royal family, but they betrayed him. Qu Yang was sent into exile, and during this time, he wrote many poems expressing his love for his country. Some of these poems are still studied today.
When the Chu State was overthrown by the powerful Qin State, Qu Yang committed suicide. He drowned in the river on the 5th day of the 5th month. Local villagers spent days searching for him in their boats, but his body wasn’t found. To preserve the body in the river, they threw rice to keep fish from eating his body and beat their oars against rocks to scare off spirits.
Dragon Boat Racing
Dragon Boats are elaborately carved boats with the dragon’s head at the front and the tail in the back. Along the side of the boat are the painted scales, and the paddles represent the dragon’s claws. A single dragon boat can have anywhere from ten to 50 people! There is also a drummer at the front of the boat and a person at the helm to steer.
During the holiday, dragon boat races are held across the country. Both regular people and trained racers participate. The traditional reward for the winning team is good fortune and happiness for the year.3
Dragon boat races have grown from a Chinese tradition to a modern competitive sport. In 1976, Hong Kong held the first international dragon boat races. Since then, teams have formed around the world. The International Dragon Boat Federation oversees the rules and regulations of competitive races. There are now more than 60 countries who participate in dragon boat races. Many major cities have their own recreational or competitive team as well.
Zongzi: Traditional Dragon Boat Festival Food
The traditional food for the Dragon Boat Festival is zongzi. Zongzi is a sticky rice snack cooked in bamboo or reed leaves and can have a variety of fillings. Some people have compared zongzi to a tamale made with rice instead of corn. Glutinous rice and filings are wrapped in the leaves and steamed. The tradition of eating sticky rice snacks for the Dragon Boat Festival most likely comes from the Qu Yuan legend.
The variations of zongzi depend on the region. This gallery from the China Daily shows the variety of fillings and folding methods across China.4 There are both sweet and savory types. Some zongzi are served with no fillings and topped with honey or sugar. Other fillings include sweet red beans, Chinese dates, chestnuts, salted egg yolk, pork belly, and many others. Zongzi can come in many different shapes; however, the most iconic image is of several pyramid shapes hanging in clusters. Other regions wrap the rice like a thick log, horn, or flat triangle.
Due to the prevalence of dragon boat races, the Chinese festival is more accessible than ever. It is celebrated worldwide. Whether you want to watch the races or unwrap packets of zongzi, experiencing the Dragon Boat Festival for yourself will surely leave a lasting memory. The history and tradition of the festival are certainly worth experiencing at least once if you can, and due to the numerous locations it is celebrated, it may just be closer than you think. Happy Dragon Boat Festival, or Duānwǔjié, as they would happily say in China.
Dragon Boat Festival Citations:
1 Lee-St.John, Jennine. “The Legends Behind the Dragon Boat Festival.” Smithsonian.com. May 14, 2009. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-legends-behind-the-dragon-boat-festival-135634582/.
2 Jennine Lee-St. John. “The Legends Behind the Dragon Boat Festival.” Smithsonian.com. May 14, 2009. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-legends-behind-the-dragon-boat-festival-135634582/.
3 “Dragon Boat Festival 2019 and 2020.” Public Holidays Global. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://publicholidays.cn/dragon-boat-festival/.
4 范针, and Pauline D. Loh. “Different Styles of Zongzi.” Chinadaily.com.cn. May 28, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2019. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/food/2014-05/28/content_17543798.htm.
I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.
I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!