Dragon Boat Festival - Duanwu Jie

Celebrating The Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boats ready for racing, as part of Dragon Boat Festival festivities.

The Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Jie, is a traditional Chinese festival and Taoist holiday that falls on fifth day of the fifth lunar month – and hence is also known as Double Fifth Day.

Origins Of The Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival originated in the Zhou Dynasty, in honor of a man named Qu Yuan, who was a poet and statesman, and a minister to the Zhou Emperor. Qu Yuan was a wise and kind and honest man, who did much to eliminate the corruption rampant in the Zhou court.

This was a time in Chinese history when, despite the fact that the Zhou Dynasty was the official ruling power, a number of feudal states were vying for power, and internecine warfare was rampant. Qu Yuan advised the Zhou Emperor to avoid going to war with the Qin – one of these feudal states. This advice was not popular with the other members of the court, and Qu Yuan ended up being exiled.

When the Zhou were defeated by the Qin, Qu Yuan -- in despair -- threw himself into the Milou River, on the fifth day of the fifth month in 278 BC. His last poem was:

Many a heavy sigh I have in my despair,
Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time.
I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix chariot,
And waited for the wind to come,
To soar up on my journey

Upon hearing of Qu Yuan’s suicide, the local fishermen paddled out in their long boats, beating drums and throwing glutinous rice balls (zong zi) into the water, so that the fish would eat these, instead of eating Qu Yuan’s body.

Since that time, people have commemorated Qu Yuan by celebrating the anniversary of his death with activities that include dragon boat races and the eating of zong zi. Because Qu Yuan was a great poet, Duanwu Jie is sometimes also celebrated as “Poet’s Day.”

Read More: Taoist Poetry

An alternative theory of the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival tells a very similar story, but its main character is Wu Zixu, who lived a couple of centuries before Qu Yuan.

Like the latter, Wu Zixu was also a much-loved political advisor, who ended up committing suicide, after which his body was thrown into the river.

Dragon Boat Races

The highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival is, of course, the Dragon Boat races! Dragon boats are long canoes that are painted in bright colors – to look like dragons -- and feature a dragon’s head at the bow and a dragon’s curved tail at the stern. The Dragon Boat is “brought to life” in a ceremony in which its eyes are painted. The boats range in length, and can be powered by up to 80 rowers. The winner of the Dragon Boat race is the first team to grab a flag hung at the end of the course.

Zong Zi

The traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival is zong zi -- glutinous rice balls filled with egg, beans, various fruits, walnuts, dates, sweet potato, mushrooms, and/or meat. The zong zi, once prepared, are wrapped in corn husks or bamboo leaves and steamed.

Other Duanwu Jie Activities

Along with watching or participating in Dragon Boat races, and eating zong zi, traditional Dragon Boat Festival activities include:

1. Drinking Xiong Huang wine (a combination of the Chinese herb Xiong Huang with rice wine) which is believed to ward off evil spirits.

2. Painting and/or hanging pictures of Zhong Kui – a Chinese mythological guardian spirit – on ones front door, to protect the household from ghosts and evil beings. It's common also to hang herbs such as moxa (mugwort) alongside the images of Zhong Kui.

3. Creating charms, amulets or medicine bags – pouches filled with herbs and/or spices believed to ward off disease.

4. Making the attempt to stand an egg of its end, at noontime on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. If you succeed, it means good luck for the following year.