Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) has been held in the Middle Kingdom for over 2000 years. On the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar man-powered boats race down rivers and lakes all over the country while bystanders snack on bamboo-leaf wrapped rice packages called zongzi (粽子).
The origin story of this festival varies regionally, but the most common one is that of the poet Qu Yuan. According to legend, Qu Yuan was a member of the Chu emperor’s house where he served in a position of high office. When the king planned to form an allegiance with the rival Qin emperor, Qu spoke out in opposition. He was promptly charged with treason and banished accordingly. While exiled, Qu Yuan turned to poetry, the writings of which gained famed across the whole of China and remain today some of the most revered works in the nation’s history.
Eventually the allegiance between the Chu and Qin emperors turned sour, as Qu Yan had predicted. Qu Yan was so distraught by this news that he threw himself into the Miluo River and died. Qu Yan’s loyal followers searched far and wide for his body in the river, but none was to be found. Hoping to keep the fish from eating Qu Yan’s body, they threw rice balls into the river for the fish to eat instead.
And such is the gruesome tale believed by many to be the origin of today’s lively Dragon Boat festivities.
Today the Dragon Boat Races and the consumption of zongzi serve as a testament to the renowned poet Qu Yuan. Other rituals like hanging of mugwort and calamus, drinking wine, and wearing perfume pouches, are believed to protect against evil spirits and diseases.
What to Eat
As you probably guessed, those rice balls that the people threw into the river eventually evolved into the modern day leaf-wrapped rice snack known as zongzi. Zongzi are ubiquitous during Dragon Boat Festival. They are traditionally made of glutinous sticky rice with a centre of either meat or sweet fruit. The package is then wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with string before being boiled.
The Dragon Boat Race
Dragon boat racing is the most popular activity during the Dragon Boat Festival. Beyond its traditional roots, it has evolved into one of the most thrilling and inclusive water sports in China today. International dragon boat racing is now organized by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), which serves as the global governing body for the sport. A dragon boat race even made its appearance as a demonstration sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, teasing the possibility of it becoming an official Olympic sport in the near future – fingers crossed!
The dragon boat, traditionally crafted from teak wood and originating in southern China, showcases a mythical dragon head at the front, a stylized dragon tail at the rear, and intricate dragon scales along its sides. The length of the boat can range from approximately 8 to over 18 meters, while the width and internal depth vary depending on the boat’s purpose.
The crew size also varies, typically exceeding ten individuals, especially in competitive settings. A standard dragon boat crew consists of 22 members: 20 paddlers positioned in pairs facing the bow, one drummer at the bow, and one steerer at the rear. However, crew size can change based on the boat’s length, with smaller boats having as few as 10 paddlers and larger traditional boats accommodating over 50 paddlers, along with a drummer and a steerer. The drummer sets the rhythm with pulsating drum beats, the steerer, positioned at the back, is responsible for controlling the direction of the boat’s movement.
Great Places to Catch Dragon Boat Festival
Here are some of our favorite places to watch the annual dragon boat races and festivities:
Xixi Wetland, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
Hangzhou has an annual International Dragon Boat Race at the Xixi wetlands, just 5 km from West Lake. This year the races will be held for three days between June 22nd – 24th. Here fancifully designed boats can be viewed from the perch of a high pavilion while sipping local tea and with sounds of Chinese opera performances echoing in the background.
Once the boat races are over the zongzi-making competitions begin. Apart from traditional Dragon Boat Festival celebrations, there are many other cultural activities to enjoy, including bamboo weaving and fan painting. This is definitely a Dragon Boat Festival stop not to be missed!
Qingshui River, Guizhou
If you miss the dragon boat races this month, there’s another opportunity to witness the excitement in July! The Miao dragon boat race is a whole different celebration and is held July 12th – 14th this year. Along with the thrilling boat racing, expect lively folk singing and dancing during the race as well!
Miluo River, Yueyang, Hunan
If you’re in for a classic Dragon Boat Festival experience, then the Miluo River is the place to be for when the dragon boat races start on June 21. This is the exact river where Qu Yuan was said to have met his fate, so in addition to the dragon boat racing and general holiday festivities, there are also many odes to Qu Yan found around the town.
Li River, Guanxi
In Guangxi, the dragon boat ceremony takes place with exceptional grandeur every five years. With the last dragon boat ceremony taking place in 2018, this year’s celebration promises to be one of a kind. The dragon boat celebrations will take place in various villages along the picturesque Li River, offering stunning views of the karst mountains and their surroundings.
Get ready to witness the power and determination of the paddlers as they navigate the stunning landscapes all around China!