The History of the Dragon Boat Festival

Chinese Dragon Festival
 Zhong Zhi / Contributor/Getty Images 

The Dragon Boat Festival is called Duan Wu Jie in Chinese. Jie means festival. The most popular theory of the origin of the festival is that it was derived from the commemoration of a great patriot poet, Qu Yuan. Since some of the well-known traditions of the festival existed even before Qu Yuan, other origins of the festival have also been suggested.

Wen Yiduo suggested that the festival may be closely associated with dragons because two of its most important activities, boat racing and eating zongzi, have ties to dragons. Another view is that the festival originated from the taboo of evil days. The fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar is traditionally considered an evil month and the fifth of the month is particularly a bad day, so a lot of taboo had been developed.

Most likely, the festival was gradually derived from all of the above, and the story of Qu Yuan adds to the allure of the festival today.

The Legend of the Festival

Like other Chinese festivals, there is also a legend behind the festival. Qu Yuan served in the court of Emperor Huai during the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC). He was a wise and erudite man. His ability and fight against corruption antagonized other court officials. They exerted their evil influence on the emperor, so the emperor gradually dismissed Qu Yuan and eventually exiled him.

During his exile, Qu Yuan did not give up. He traveled extensively, taught and wrote about his ideas. His works, the Lament (Li Sao), the Nine Chapters (Jiu Zhang), and Wen tian are masterpieces and invaluable for studying ancient Chinese culture. He saw the gradual decline of his mother country, the Chu State. And when he heard that the Chu State was defeated by the strong Qin State, he was in such despair that he ended his life by flinging himself into the Miluo River.

Legend says after people heard he drowned, they were greatly dismayed. Fishermen raced to the spot in their boats to search for his body. Unable to find his body, people threw zongzi, eggs, and other food into the river to feed fish. Since then, people commemorated Qu Yuan through dragon boat races, eating zongzi and other activities on the anniversary of his death, the fifth of the fifth month.

Festival Foods

Zongzi is the most popular food for the festival. It is a special kind of dumpling usually made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Unfortunately, fresh bamboo leaves are hard to find.

Today you may see zongzi in different shapes and with a variety of fillings. The most popular shapes are triangular and pyramidal. The fillings include dates, meat and egg yolks, but the most popular fillings are dates.

During the festival, people are reminded of the importance of loyalty and commitment to the community. Dragon boat races may be Chinese in origin, but today they are held worldwide. 

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Custer, Charles. "The History of the Dragon Boat Festival." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Custer, Charles. (2023, April 5). The History of the Dragon Boat Festival. Retrieved from Custer, Charles. "The History of the Dragon Boat Festival." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).