Dragon Boat Festival is the one which owns the largest plenty of names in all traditional Chinese festivals, such as Duanyang Festival and the Bathing Festival. It is celebrated by the Han nationality and many of the minorities, including the Zhuang, Bouyei, Gelao peoples, etc., and it has been spread to Japan, North and South Korea, Vietnam and other countries. The Dragon Boat Festival was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO in 2009.





Dragon Boat Festival originated from the worship of astronomical phenomena over 2500 years ago. When the Dragon Boat Festival arrives in midsummer, the seven mansions of Azure Dragon (one of the four regions of sky ecliptic) reach culmination in the south, corresponding to “flying dragon in the heavens”, the fifth line of Qian hexagram in I Ching (The Book of Changes), indicating that things are in the most prosperous period. In “Research on Dragon Boat Festival”, Mr. Wen Yiduo proposed that the Dragon Boat Festival dates back to ancient times when Wu and Yue peoples offered sacrifices to their dragon totem. Later on, as Qu Yuan (BC 340 – 278), one of the greatest patriotic and romanticist poets of Chu State during the Warring States period, threw himself into Miluo River on May 5, the Dragon Boat Festival evolved into an occasion to commemorate him. There are other theories that the festival is to memorialize famous persons including Wu Zixu (BC 526 – 484), Jie Zitui (? – BC 636) and Cao E (130 – 143) the filial daughter, etc.

《屈原》 傅抱石 现藏于北京故宫博物院

Qu Yuan, Fu Baoshi, Palace Museum, Beijing



Dragon Boat Festival also marks a time to fend off evil spirits and toxins as temperature and humidity are rising and insects are multiplying, transmitting more diseases. It later evolved into many folkways like memorial ceremonies, games and health care in different regions.

红色地虎镇五毒妆花纱裱片 明 现藏于北京故宫博物院

Silk Embroidery of Defeating the Five Poisonous Creatures, Ming dynasty, Palace Museum, Beijing





Offering sacrifices to dragon – Racing dragon boats


Racing dragon boat is a major event and a legacy of ancient dragon totem sacrificial rituals. Archaeological sites of prehistoric cultures, such as Hemudu culture, indicate that ancient people have built wood canoes and oars around 5000 to 7000 years ago. Dragon boat derived from dugout canoe with carved dragon images developed into dragon-shaped wooden boat. Nowadays, people race dragon boats on Dragon Boat Festival with different rituals. In general, before the race, digging up the dragon boats buried under water is the first ritual to perform, followed by sacrificial offerings to the god and installing dragon head and tail. In Zigui, Hubei province, hometown of Qu Yuan, rowing dragon boat is a tribute to him as well. Now, dragon boat racing becomes a popular international sport in many other countries.



Memorializing Qu Yuan – Eating Zongzi


According to the most popular version of the origin of Dragon Boat Festival, Chu people threw glutinous rice dumplings in bamboo tubes or wild rice leaves into the river to commemorate Qu Yuan. To prevent the flood dragon from stealing the offerings, people wrapped rice with chinaberry leaves and five-color silk threads that flood dragon fears. This is the glutinous rice dumpling known as Zongzi. Nowadays, Zongzi is usually wrapped with chequer-shaped indocalamus leaves or reed leaves.




Preventing diseases – Hanging  argy wormwood and acorus calamus  leaves over the door; bathing in herbal water; drinking realgar wine


It is believed that herbs are most effective around Dragon Boat Festival so that all herbs can be medicinal on that day. Nowadays, in Guangdong, Hunan, Guangxi and many other regions, the tradition of gathering herbs and bathing in herbal water to wash off bad luck remains.


《太平欢乐图》册之《采艾》 清 董棨 现藏于北京故宫博物院
Gathering Argy Wormwood Leaves, Dong Qi, Qing dynasty, Palace Museum, Beijing


Seasonal changes during this time lead to various diseases, so the prevention of plague and epidemic and detoxification become an important custom of the festival. People hang a bundle of argy wormwood leaves and acorus calamus wrapped with red paper over the door; wear sachets of herba eupatorii, argy wormwood, angelica dahurica and other herbs to ensure a clear flow in main and collateral channels and to prevent diseases by inhaling the fragrance.




Drinking realgar wine on Dragon Boat Festival was once popular along the Yangtze River. Only a slight trace of ruby sulphur, or realgar, is added in white liquor (Baijiu) or home-brewed yellow rice wine. For children, ruby sulphur wine is applied to their foreheads, noses, ears, hands and feet to fend off insects and illness. Sprinkling the wine on the corners of walls and under beds can have the same effect and ensure a clean environment.




Warding off evils – Tying five-color silk thread


In traditional Chinese culture, the five colors – cyan, red, white, black, yellow – representing the five directions and five elements, are considered auspicious colors. It is popular to tie a five-color silk thread around the wrist or ankle. Nowadays, a variety of folk accessories are produced, including silk bracelet, longevity lock, scented sachet, etc.





Sweet or salty Zongzi? Similar to tofu pudding (douhua), this differentiation of flavor has long existed. In general, northern Chinese prefer saltiness and southern Chinese sweetness; however, as for Zongzi, it is basically the other way around. How and why? Researches show that since sugar was once a luxury, northern China contributed to most of the sugar consumption before Song dynasty (960-1279), where economic development was more advanced; while southern Chinese use a large amount of salt to preserve food. During Ming and Qing dynasties, Fujian and Guangdong became sugar production centers, leading to rising price and lower consumption of sugar in the north and more sweet food in the south. Such flavor preference remains until today. As a result, when making zongzi, a type of food with sacrificial and ritual purposes, people tend to use more valuable materials than usual. Therefore, Zongzi in the north is filled with red dates and sweet red bean paste, while in the south, meat with higher value than sugar is used. Zongzi with fresh meat in Jiaxing, with salted egg yolk and meat in Guangdong, with braised meat in Fujian, with lard and red bean paste in Suzhou; with red date or red bean paste in Beijing, with honey in Xi’an; or with chili in Sichuan, boiled with plant ash water in Yunnan, and ox-horn-shaped Zongzi in Miluo – the place where Zongzi was invented and where Qu Yuan threw himself into the river. Different fillings, leaf wrappings and procedures produce various shapes and flavors, but the inheritance of cultural legacy and spirit remains unchanged.


You may follow the following procedures to try to make some Zongzi at home:






“Long, long had been my road and far, far was the journey; I would go up and down to seek my heart’s desire.” Encountering Sorrow (Li Sao), a poetic masterpiece through the ages, passes down the spirit of Qu Yuan. By reading this poem, we remember the great soul of our ancestor, our profound history and cultural legacy forever and ever.



Video provided by chinaculture.org

《非物质文化遗产在中国》 北京语言大学出版社 2017

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