Haiwang YUAN

Dragon boat racing is a centerpiece of the Duanwujie, one of China’s most important festivals. Different villages and businesses send their teams to compete. When signal to start is given, each team paddles its individually designed dragon boat as hard as it can while its leader beats a drum rhythmically to coordinate their efforts. Cheers from onlookers on the bank add to the excitement. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

Having had many names in history, Duanwujie 端午节, known as the Dragon Boat Festival in the West, is celebrated by racing in boats shaped like dragons and by eating a special dumpling called zongzi. The festival is now popular in many countries in Asia and in Chinese communities elsewhere; dragon boat racing has become a favorite sport around the world.

What Westerners know as the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals. The date of the festival is determined by the Chinese lunar calendar and falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. On 18 December 2007, the Chinese government made the festival an official three-day holiday with paid leave.


The festival has had more than two dozen names throughout history, including Duanyangjie (First Yang Festival), Wurijie (Festival of the Fifth Day), Aijie (Festival of Wormwood), Chongwu (Double Five), Wuri (The Fifth Day), Xiajie (Summer Festival), Duanwu (Fifth of the Month), and Wuyuejie (Festival of the Fifth Moon). Only two names are used today, Duanwujie and Wuyuejie, the former being literal and the latter colloquial.

The celebration of Duanwujie involves a number of activities, varying from region to region, the most prevalent of which is racing colorful boats shaped like dragons. Others include making and eating zongzi (a glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves) and contests that involve standing eggs on their ends on the ground. In addition, to ward off disease, people decorate their houses with aromatic herbs like sweet flag and wormwood leaves, drink realgar wine (a reddish-orange ore of arsenic common in traditional Chinese medicine), take a walk in the country, wear scented xiangbao sachets, and put up exorcising signs inside and outside their houses. In the region where the provinces of Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi meet, there is a tradition of parading land dragon boats from village to village. The villagers believe that the boats are capable of expelling plagues. Eating zongzi and racing dragon boats have become the most popular activities throughout the Chinese-speaking world, and the egg-standing contest has turned into a popular game for children.

Zongzi is a dumpling whose glutinous rice stuffing can be sweet (usually with jujubes or red bean paste, favored in North China) or salty (with preserved ham or braised pork, well-liked in the south). A zongzi was initially contained in a bamboo tube but is now wrapped in leaves of bamboo, reed, lotus, or banana. Varieties of zongzi, with different stuffings and shapes, are found in supermarkets throughout the country.

Dragon boat racing is the centerpiece of the Duanwu Festival and is held as a large community event. Different villages send their teams to compete. When the signal to start is given, each team paddles its individually designed dragon boat as hard as it can while its leader rhythmically beats a drum to coordinate the paddling. Wave after wave of cheers from onlookers on the bank adds to the excitement. In 1980 China listed dragon boat racing as an official national sport.


The name Duanwu was first documented sometime in the third century, but the origin of the festival is unknown. There are at least five theories: to commemorate Wu Zixu, (526–484 BCE) a senior official of the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE); to commemorate Qu Yuan, (340–278 BCE) a poet and statesman of the Chu state in the Warring States period (475–221 BCE); to celebrate the Chinese dragon; to fend off plagues; and to observe the summer solstice.

Wu Zixu constantly admonished the King of Wu for neglecting the danger presented by his long-time rival, the King of Yue. The wrathful King of Wu forced Wu Zixu to commit suicide and had his body thrown into a river. According to a legend mostly circulating in Suzhou, people raced their boats to where the body fell and tried to save it from the mouths of fish by throwing zongzi dumplings into the water.

Qu Yuan was a poet and statesman who, like Wu Zixu, foresaw the danger of his state being overrun, this time by the state of Qin, and never hesitated to warn the King of Chu against the imminent peril. He, too, incurred the wrath of his king, who banished him from the court. In despair Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River. As told by popular legend in what are today the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hubei, and Hunan, people did the same thing they did for Wu Zixu—threw dumplings in the water—in the hopes of saving Qu Yuan’s body from the nibbling fish.

Though living two centuries apart, Wu Zixu and Qu Yuan died on the same day, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The date of Wu Zixu’s death might be accidental, but some believe that Qu Yuan’s was intentional, including Liu Shilin, associate director of the Miluo Municipal Qu Yuan Memorial. He argues that the Duanwu Festival was originally a day to worship dragons, which were believed to have the power either to cause or to prevent natural disasters. Qu Yuan, who was so proud of his birth in the year of the dragon, would most probably choose a day of dragon worshiping to die so he could be carried into heaven by this magic animal.

The tradition of dragon boat racing is said to be 2,500 years old. The first written record of a dragon boat was excavated from the tomb of King Xiang (reigned 318–296 BCE) of the Wei State. Dragon boats had already been employed for worshiping dragons, fighting wars, and entertaining kings and aristocrats before their use in commemorating Wu Zixu or Qu Yuan.

The Legend of Duanwujie

The true origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is unknown, but one theory claims that the holiday commemorates the poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Miluo River after discovering the conquest of the Qin rulers.

Serving in the Chu Court was a great statesman and poet named Qu Yuan (340 BCE–278 BCE). His uprightness and outspokenness antagonized many of his peers, who eventually managed to alienate him from the King of Chu. Ignoring Qu Yuan’s repeated warnings against Qin’s aggressiveness, the King of Chu first lost territories to Qin and later his freedom and life after he was invited to a faked peace talk. While on his political exile in 278 BCE, Qu Yuan learned of the bad news he had long feared: Chu had succumbed to the conquest of Qin. Overcome by indignation and despair, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River, a tributary of Yangtze, and drowned himself. He preferred to die rather than live in humiliation under Qin’s rule.

Qu Yuan’s patriotism deeply touched his people, and his death equally saddened them. Now the only thing they could do to pay their tribute was fish his body out for a proper burial. The Chinese believe that without a body, the soul will have no place to rest in. They raced against time, hoping to retrieve Qu’s body before fish could get hold of it. Suddenly someone came up with the idea of throwing cooked rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river so that fish would no longer feed on the body.

The day Qu Yuan died fell on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month, which has become a festival commemorating him. The rice dumpling, known as zongzi, has become part of the festival’s observation. The act of fishing Qu Yuan’s body has evolved into a tradition of boat racing, and for this reason the day is also called the Dragon Boat Festival.

Haiwang YUAN

During the Duanwu Festival on 16 June 1991, China held its first International Dragon Boat Festival in Yueyang City of Hubei Province. With the founding of the International Dragon Boat Federation in Hong Kong on 24 June 1991, dragon boat racing has spread from Asia to Europe, North America, Australia, and Africa. The United States claims more than 400 dragon boat teams.

Further Reading

Huang Wei. (2006 May, 26). Nan bei zongzi piao xiang, tiyan Zijincheng li de Duanwu [Fragrance around the country: An experience of the Duanwu Festival in the Forbbiden City]. Retrieved October 29, 2008, from http://culture.people.com.cn/GB/22226/60931/4409429.html

Gaer, J., & Jauss, A. M. (1953). Holidays around the world. Boston: Little, Brown.

Yuan, Haiwang. (2006). The magic lotus lantern and other tales from the Han Chinese. In World folklore series. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Dragon Boat Festival. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 638–640. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔjié 端午节)|Duānwǔjié 端午节 (Dragon Boat Festival)

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