The Dragon Boat Festival is a traditional festival with the central themes of warding off evil spirits and keeping diseases, pests, and drought away. Today, dragon boat racing is a sport that people all over the world participate in, but the origins and other traditional practices related to the festival are less known. Its history is rooted in the stories of two significant Chinese figures: Qu Yuan (屈原) and Wu Zixu (伍子胥). The date of this traditional public holiday varies on the Gregorian calendar.

What is Dragon Boat Festival?

crowds watch dragon boat races
Large crowds gather at rivers for dragon boat races (© Tony Tseng via WikiCommons)

Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on June 22, 2023. Also known as Tuen Ng Festival (端午節, tuen ng jit in Cantonese) or Double Fifth Festival (雙五節, seung ng jit in Cantonese), the day highlights dragon boat racing as a symbol of the culmination of multiple practices meant to drive away evil energy and invite clean energy into your life.

The name ‘Double Fifth Festival’ comes from the holiday’s occurrence on the fifth day of the five-month lunar calendar. Celebrated all over Asia, the most common activities are watching fierce dragon boat races and eating symbolic foods like sticky rice cooked in lotus leaves.

How to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival

Traditional practices for celebrating The Dragon Boat Festival include:

  • Hanging portraits of the guardian deity Zhong Kui (鍾馗), a hunter of demons, in the home to keep dark spirits from entering;
  • Hanging mugwort leaves, a Chinese herbal medicine, on the front door to protect the household from illness. Indeed, it’s been found that insects are repelled by mugwort and calamus plants;
  • Giving children lucky fragrance pouches called ‘fragrant sachets’ (香囊, heung nong in Cantonese), which are sewn with silk cloth and thread and then filled with fragrances or herbs. Again, the effects are twofold: these bags are worn around the neck or tied to the front of clothing to protect the individual from evil spirits and to deter insects carrying infectious diseases;
  • Standing an egg on its end for a day, which is believed to bring prosperity for the year.

These traditions are key in encouraging a healthy and especially prosperous year ahead.

ink painting of zhong kui
Chinese demon hunter, Zhong Kui, in a mural in Taiwan (© Dudva via WikiCommons)
colourful chinese pouches filled with herbs and perfume
Scented pouches for children during Tuen Ng Festival zevei-wenhui via Canva)
chinese herb mugwort
Mugwort herbs hanging to dry (© Dave Bonta via Flickr)

The Dragon Boat Festival is mainly celebrated in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and within the Chinese community in other countries. While practices like hanging dried herbs and wearing perfume pouches may not be seen everywhere, activities like eating festive foods and dragon boat racing are certainly practised all over the world. Different countries have various ways of celebrating, but they all unite around the core ideas of avoiding sickness and warding off evil spirits.

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The history behind Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival is believed to have its origin two thousand years ago in the Warring States period (475-221 BC). During this divisive ancient Chinese era, seven states fought for territorial control until the country was united under the Qin Dynasty.

Chinese figures Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu, and Cao E are said to have lived during this period, and the legends surrounding their lives are key to understanding the history and various modern practices surrounding the festival. 

Qu Yuan (屈原)

qu yuan on dragon boat display in singapore
Historical figure Qu Yuan plays a part in the importance of the Dragon Boat Festival (© Vmenkov via WikiCommons)

Qu Yuan was a poet and political minister in the Chu state characterized by his classical poetry and political devotion. As the king’s main advisor, Qu Yuan attempted to introduce strong political reform. Other officials became jealous of his high position and manipulated the king into exiling Qu Yuan.

During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote poems to show his love for his province. When the Chu state eventually fell to the Qin state, the story states that Qu Yuan was so devastated that he wrote one final poem and then drowned himself in a river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The legend goes on to say that sympathetic villagers rowed onto the river to retrieve his body.

Unable to find it, they rowed along the river hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare bad spirits away. They also threw lumps of rice into the water to distract fish from eating the body. Scholars write of his death as a form of martyrdom, a respectable symbol of his dedication to his home state. In this way, the traditions of boat racing and consumption of rice dumplings came about to honor the memory of Qu Yuan.

Wu Zixu (伍子胥)  

print depicting wu zixu history
Meiji era artist Yoshitoshi’s print depicting the story of Wu Zixu (© Japan Collection via WikiCommons)

A second origin story tells of Wu Zixu, the ancient premier of Wu state. People in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which is the former territory of the Wu state, more commonly attribute this story to the birth of Tuen Ng Festival.

Wu’s brother and father were imprisoned on order of the king. Eventually, both were executed. Wu Zixu fled to Wu state in fear that he would experience the same fate. He eventually helped Wu state’s king conquer Chu state, avenging his family members’ execution and advancing in political rank. But when the king’s successor was bribed by an opposing state’s official (a state that Wu had advised the successor to target), Wu Zixu was commanded to commit suicide.

Wu’s body was thrown into a river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and locals held dragon boat races to show solidarity with him.

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Cao E (曹娥)

statue of cao e in front of ancient chinese print
Cao E statue in a Chinese temple (© Siyuwj via WikiCommons)

Another popular origin story behind Tuen Ng Festival is about a loyal daughter named Cao E. The young girl’s father drowned in a river, his body lost to the water. Cao E searched along the riverbanks for his corpse for days, wanting to give her father a proper burial. Unable to contain her sorrow, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the filial daughter jumped into the river. Cao E’s body was discovered days later. In her arms, she held her father, having finally found him in death.

What to eat during Dragon Boat Festival?

In Hong Kong

The most traditional food related to the Dragon Boat Festival is the rice dumpling known as zongzi (粽子), simply called jung (糉) in Hong Kong. The dumpling starts with sticky glutinous rice that is soaked in alkaline water. The sticky rice is wrapped in bamboo leaves in a triangular shape, filled with precooked ingredients, tied with string, and boiled in water. The common fillings for glutinous rice dumplings are egg yolk, pork, lotus seeds, green bean paste, peanuts, and other nuts.

sticky rice dumpling for dragon boat festival
Rice dumplings are steamed in baskets(© iPandastudio via Canva)
fillings inside chinese sticky dumpling
Salted egg yolk and mushroom inside zongzi (© ksumano via Canva)

The lumps of rice thrown into the river in the story of Qu Yuan have evolved into this elaborate, rich food that sees variations in fillings and bamboo leaf shapes throughout Asian countries.

chinese fried sesame balls
Jiandui (© Supardisahabu via WikiCommons)

In Hong Kong, people also eat fried sesame balls called jiandui (煎䭔). These pastries are made of glutinous rice flour that is then fried and coated with sesame seeds. A delightful eating experience, the outside of the jiandui is crispy and savoury while the inside is chewy and sweet. The balls contain various fillings, like red bean paste or mochi (a Japanese twist).

In Taiwan and China

The variations don’t stop at jiandui; the food associated with this celebratory Double Fifth Festival season changes depending on where the festival is located.

In Taiwan, multiple ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and baby shrimp are stir-fried and then steamed inside rice dumplings. In Northern China, the sticky rice dumplings tend to be sweeter; in Southern China, the rice dumplings are salty and more rectangular; in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, people boil eggs in tea and dye them red to be hung in a bag around children’s neck for good luck.

realgar wine preparation
Realgar wine (© xb100 via Canva)

Another culinary tradition during Tuen Ng Festival is drinking realgar wine. Chinese yellow wine is combined with trace amounts of powdered realgar (雄黄, xiong huang in Putonghua), which is a dark yellow arsenic sulphide mineral. Here again, the beliefs are both practical and symbolic; the wine is an antidote for poison and also thought to chase away evil energy.

What is the significance of dragon boat races?

The dragon boat race is the most exciting, colourful event during Tuen Ng Festival. The famous dragon boat is a long, narrow boat painted with a Chinese dragon head and tail. The number of paddlers can stretch from 10 to 50, with the typical team consisting of 22 people. Along with the paddlers, there is also the leader at the bow beating the timekeeping drum and a steerer at the rear.

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Teamwork is an essential factor as all the paddlers need to move in unison, following the rhythm of the beating drum. This ritual of the beating drum and synchronicity placates the rain gods so that they bring raindrops in the year to come, and also celebrates rice growth in the summer.

paddlers in dragon boat race
Dragon boat teams competing in Macau (© lidxplus via WikiCommons)

Since 1976, dragon boat racing has started to become more popular as the Hong Kong government under British rule marketed dragon boat racing as a sport to attract tourism. As the International Dragon Boat Federation was built in 1991, since then dragon boat racing has been practiced in lots of countries around the world. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Race attracts international athletes to compete every year and races have become so popular that lots of countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Germany have their own dragon races.

The Dragon Boat Festival or Double Fifth Festival has grown from a legend based on defending the home from evil spirits to an international tradition. The world has grown to share its praise and Hong Kong has embraced it wholeheartedly. The Dragon Boat race remains a sport of unity and an amazing festival to respect both the legends and the current culture surrounding it.

Where can I watch the dragon boat races this year?

In 2023, the following dragon boat races are scheduled:

  • Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships 2023 (June 22, 2023 from 8am to 5pm at Stanley Main Beach)
  • Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade & Race (June 22, 2023 from 8am to 2pm at Tai O Market Street bridge)
  • 2022 Aberdeen Dragon Boat Race (June 22, 2023 from 8am on at Aberdeen Promenade)
  • Tai Po Dragon Boat Race (June 22, 2023 from 8:30am on at Tai Po Waterfront Park Promenade)
  • Cheung Chau Dragon Boat Festival (June 22, 2023 from 10am on at Cheung Chau Typhoon Shelter)
  • Sai Kung Dragon Boat Festival (June 22, 2023 from 8am on at Sai Kung Town Pier)
  • Shatin Dragon Boat Races (June 22, 2023 from 8am on starting at Banyan Bridge, Shatin)

FAQ about Dragon Boat Festival

What is the significance of dragon boat races?

Dragon boat races are the most important event during Dragon Boat Festival; paddling to a drum beat represents asking the gods for rain in the coming season and defending the community from evil spirits.

How did Dragon Boat Festival start?

The most common story describing Dragon Boat Festival, or Double Fifth Festival’s origin, is about Qu Yuan. He was a loyal political minister who drowned himself when the state he loved was defeated in battle.

What do people eat during Dragon Boat Festival?

The most common festival foods eaten during Dragon Boat Festival (also called Tuen Ng Festival) are sticky rice dumplings, ‘jiandui’ fried sesame balls, and yellow realgar wine.

Other traditional Chinese festivals: Lunar New YearLunar New Year Fair — Birthday of Che KungChinese Lantern FestivalKwun Yum Treasury Opening FestivalChing Ming FestivalTin Hau FestivalCheung Chau Bun FestivalBuddha’s BirthdayBirthday of Tam KungDragon Boat FestivalBirthday of Kwan TaiQixi FestivalHung Shing FestivalHungry Ghost FestivalMid-Autumn FestivalMonkey King FestivalBirthday of ConfuciusChung Yeung FestivalWinter Solstice Festival.

Header image credits: eLjeProks via WikiCommons

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Angela studied Culinary Art & Food Service Management and had lived in the United States for several years. She has traveled to several countries and experienced their unique cultures of food and life. Having grown up with a passion for food she seeks to try any specialty food wherever she goes. You can learn more about her journey on her website.

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