Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Festival, is an important celebration in Chinese history and traditional culture. With the increasing awareness of preserving traditions and cultures, Dragon Boat Festival has been recognized as statutory public holiday in China since 2008. This day symbolizes the official beginning of summer and is one of three major traditional holidays in China. Dragon Boat is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which falls in the period from May 25th to July 24th of modern calendar. For example, Dragon Boat Festival falls on June 25 in 2020, and it will be on June 14 in 2021.
Many believe that the Dragon Boat Festival originated from ancient China based on the patriotic suicide of Qu Yuan, the poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom, in 278 BC. We highlighted this touching legend in our blog post Dragon Boat Festival Legend.
How Chinese People Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon Boat Festival is a folk festival celebrated for over 2,000 years. It’s the time when Chinese people practice various customs to dispel diseases and invoke good health.
Making and eating Zongzi
Zongzi (粽子zòngzi /dzong-dzuh/) is the most traditional Dragon Boat Festival food. It is related to the commemoration of Qu Yuan. After Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river, people were in deep grief and they did not manage to salvage his body. People were in fear that Qu Yuan’s body could be devoured, so they decided to throw rice wrapped in leaves into the river to feed all water creatures so that Qu Yuan’s body could stay untouched.
Zongzi a kind of sticky rice dumpling made of glutinous rice filled with meats, beans and other fillings. It is wrapped in triangle or rectangle shapes in bamboo or reed leaves, and tied with soaked stalks or colorful silky cords. The flavors of zongzi are usually different from one region to another across China.
Besides zongzi, there are other food traditions on Dragon Boat Festival, for example, eating green bean cakes, salted duck eggs and mianshanzi (kind of wheat flour food made in a fan shape). Most festival food traditions are connected to health protection, being nutrient-rich remedy for fatigue in summer days.
Drinking Realgar Wine
There is an old saying: ‘Drinking realgar wine drives diseases and evils away!’ Realgar wine is a Chinese alcoholic drink consisting of fermented cereals and powdered realgar.
In ancient times, people believed that realgar was an antidote for all poisons, and effective for killing insects and driving away evil spirits. Nowadays adults are still advised to drink some realgar wine during Duanwu Festival, and children should wear an amulet containing realgar.
Using special herbs and aromas
During Dragon Boat Festival, it is a very important custom to hang calamus and wormwood clusters on the door frame. Both calamus and wormwood could give off aroma that can repel pests. Similarly people also use the perfumed pouches, stuffed with vanilla, herbs, realgar and flower petals. Such pouches are not mere decorative. Instead, they are believed to keep diseases and evil spirits away while bringing fortune and happiness.
Dragon boat racing
Dragon boat racing is the most dynamic and exciting event on Dragon Boat Festival. The symbol of this festival, a dragon boat, is a human-powered wooden watercraft, shaped and decorated in the form of a Chinese dragon. Generally it is about 20–35 meters in length, and it needs 30–60 people to paddle it.
A fun fact is that the boat should be “brought to life” by performing a sacred ceremony before any competition. Then the race starts, and teams of paddlers paddle furiously to the beats of a drum. The excitement for spectators is beyond imagination.
Best Places to Celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival
If you’re looking for somewhere to watch a Dragon Boat Race during the festival, here are a few of the best places to go:
Yueyang International Dragon Boat Race: Miluo River Dragon Boat Race Center, Yueyang, Hunan
Zigui Dragon Boat Racing: Xujiachong Bay, Zuigui County, Yichang, Hubei
Miao People’s International Canoe Festival: Qingshui River, Guizhou
Hangzhou Xixi Dragon Boat Race: Xixi Wetland Park
Guangzhou Pearl River
So if you have a chance to be in China during this unique time, grab some zongzi, catch a dragon boat race and enjoy the unique experience of celebrating a traditional Chinese festival.