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Chinese Tradition: Dragon Boat Festival

It’s June 3. As per the usual celebration, you’re sitting at the side of a lake, peering over a lake filled with competitive boat racers hungry for the win. It’s an invigorating, sunny day. You enjoy a cup of xionghuangjiu (雄黄酒 xiónghuáng jiǔ) with its inextricable partner: rice dumplings. The savory taste of your snack and the assuaging briskness of the day calms your nerves. It’s a day well spent. Dragon Boat Festival (端午节Duānwǔ Jié) never gets old. 

Dragon Boat Festival (端午节Duānwǔ Jié) is one of the most imperative festivals in China. While its original cultural significance did not survive the test of time, it remains one of the celebrations that showcase China’s rich cultural heritage. 

chinese zongzi
Image from Internet

However, it is beyond mere drinking wine and eating dumplings. The dragon boat festival offers a wide array of activities. Those are the things we shall explore in this article today. 

1. Origin of Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, also called Double Fifth Festival, is a celebration during the fifth day of the fifth month according to the Chinese calendar.

Like other festivals in China, the dragon boat festival has many origins. 

However, the most famous one is about the Chinese poet, Qu Yuan. During this period, China is in chaos. Empires and states fought endlessly with each other for power, fame, and glory. 

Qu Yuan believed that this constant in-fighting would cause the motherland harm. However, his thoughts and clamor fell on deaf ears. Stricken with grief and despair due to the state of his motherland, the patriotic poet drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan province.

Legend has it that the townsfolk tried to save him. Groups of men rallied together in boats to look for his body. Other out lookers threw rice balls into the lake to prevent his body from being eaten by fish. These two events eventually became the dragon boat racing and the tasty snacks people eat as they watch the competition. 

2. Activities During the Boat Festival

2.1 Making and Eating Zongzi (粽子 zòngzi)

What Chinese festival is complete without a traditional iconic food? 

During the dragon boat festival, the go-to food for everyone is “包粽子 (bāo zòngzi)” and “吃粽子 (chī zòngzi). These are indispensable snacks during the celebration.

These two are the staples. However, stalls still offer a wide array of sticky-rice-based cuisine. People usually think of innovative food ideas using glutinous rice as the base and different fillings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. People from northern China prefer sweet zongzi, while people from southern China like savory ones.

The idea is to commemorate the death of Qu. People who remember his spirit throw these kinds of food in the river to keep him satiated. 

2.2 Dragon Boat Races (赛龙舟 Sài lóngzhōu)

Of course, what is a dragon boat festival without dragon boats? 

During the celebration, men form team-ups to compete in the annual boat racing competition. Most competitors decorate their boats to make them fierce and visually aesthetic. 

However, the tradition goes beyond mere competition. It also represents the early attempts to save Qu Yuan from drowning. It demonstrates how Chinese people forgo immediate peace to make something work. It is the traditional representation of cooperation and teamwork.

2.3 Hanging Chinese Mugwort (挂艾草 Guà ài cǎo)

In Chinese culture, death signifies something ominous. However, honoring a patriotic death doesn’t constitute something evil. Instead, it becomes a good omen. 

Over time, the memorial of Qu Yuan became a period to ask for protection from evil and disease. That’s why people hang mugworts during the celebration. They will fill it with healthy herbs to hang outside the house. They believe that the herbs clear the bad luck in the house. 

Furthermore, mugworts are an effective deterrent to flying pests. Its fragrant smell can keep mosquitoes and flies away from your house. 

3. One thing to Remember

While the Dragon Boat festival is usually a festive and happy celebration, it is not appropriate to wish people happiness. At its center, the dragon boat festival is a traditional commemoration of the people who offered their lives for the country. 

Instead of wishing people happiness, people should say:

Duānwǔ ānkāng


I wish you safe and sound on Dragon Boat day

I wish you good health at Dragon Boat Festival

However, some experts argue that the dragon boat festival precedes the incident of Qu Yuan’s death. That’s why some people dislike celebrating the dragon boat festival in honor of his death. People view it as mere tradition without any symbolic reparation involved. It is a day just for watching dragon boat races and eating rice dumplings. 

If this is the case, then you should greet them with “端午快乐 (Duānwǔ kuàilè).”

Remember, if you would like to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, you can say “端午安康 (Duānwǔ ānkāng).” 

Conversely, if you just want to celebrate the festival, you can say “端午快乐 (Duānwǔ kuàilè).”

4. Explain the knowledge points

端午节(Duānwǔ jié): Dragon Boat Festival

粽子 (zòngzi): sticky rice dumplings/ zongzi

赛龙舟 (Sài lóngzhōu): Dragon Boat Races

艾草(ài cǎo): Chinese Mugwort

For example

Wǒ xǐhuān chī tián zòngzi.


I prefer sweet zongzi.

Duānwǔ jié yǒu sài lóngzhōu, wǒmen yì qǐ qù kàn ba!


There is a dragon boat race at the Dragon Boat Festival, let’s watch it together!

Ài cǎo kěyǐ qūgǎn wénchóng.


Chinese Mugwort can deter flies and mosquitoes.


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