Explainer : The Story Behind Dragon Boat Festival

By Cathy Wu

The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

Dragon Boat Festival, aka Duanwujie 端午节, is a traditional Chinese holiday that commemorates the life and death of the famous scholar and poet Qu Yuan, who lived during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty in around 300 BC.

The festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar every year. This year, it falls today, June 10.

History of Dragon Boat Festival

Image via Wikimedia Commons

According to Chinese folklore, Qu contributed a lot to society, serving in high office. However, he fell out of favor with the emperor, was accused of treason and eventually sent into exile.

During his time in exile, Qu wrote a lot of poetry. Unappreciated and unhappy, after the Qin state captured the Chu capital of Ying, he drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar in 278 BC.

According to legend, the local villagers highly admired Qu. In an attempt to save him, or at least find his body, they raced out onto the river in boats – which is said to be the origin of dragon boat races.

Dragon Boat Races

Image via Hsiung/Flickr

As the name indicates, the centerpiece of Dragon Boat Festival are the dragon boat races, or long zhou sai 龙舟赛. In many cities across China, dragon boat races are still organized to mark the day.

READ MORE: Making and Racing Dragon Boats in the PRD

Zongzi: A Classic Holiday Treat

Image via lrs1108/Flickr

Legend has it that packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent the fish from eating Qu's body. 

Gradually, people took to eating zongzi 粽子 – glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves – around this time each year.

Popular fillings include egg yolk and meat, red bean, and jujubes.