Dragon Boat Festival: Racing and Rice dumpling

The Dragon Boat Festival (May 30th, 2017), is originally observed by the ancient people to ward off plagues in summer. Nowadays the two most important events of the festival are boat racing and eating rice dumplings, both of which involve dragon, an auspice symbol since the ancient times.

Dragon Boat Festival

Mr. Tool, together with his wife and son, arrived in Beijing on May 26 from the United States to visit his father who has been living here. The family were recommended to come on this particular occasion –the Dragon Boat Festival – to experience the festival themselves in order to satisfy their curiosity about this traditional Chinese festival. Having an “old-China-hand” father, Mr. Tool feels nothing new about the glutinous rice dumplings and dragon-boat racing. What really fascinates him are the mysterious legends behind the food and the sports event.

The Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is originally observed by the ancient people to ward off plagues in summer. However, when the patriotic poet and scholar Qu Yuan (340 B.C. – 278 B.C.) killed himself by jumping into a river on that day, people began commemorating the poet on this festival as well. Along with the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival is an important day to the Chinese people.

In the present-day China, urban residents seem to have forgotten the true meaning of this festival in their bustling city life. They just buy some rice dumplings in supermarkets and consider that an observance of the festival. In contrast, rural dwellers observe the festival in a more traditional way. They pick wormwood leaves in the morning and hung them up on doors. They make incense pouches and weave colored silk threads in the hope of warding off plagues and evils. They also make glutinous rice dumplings with various fillings, while enthusiastic young people gather on river banks to take active part in the exciting dragon boat race.

In 2008, the Chinese government designated the Dragon Boat Festival and the Qingming Festival (also known as the Tomb Sweeping Day) as public holidays. People are able to visit family and friends, pick wormwood leaves, watch dragon boat races, make rice dumplings and incense bags on this special day, which helps to revive the festival’s traditional customs across China.

Dragon Boat Festival

Wormwood leaves were hung up on the doors

Long Juan, a mother of a one-year-old girl in Beijjng, said she had not celebrated the festival for ages. Thanks to the nanny who came from their rural hometown and knew the festival’s rites, Long’s family had spent the Dragon Boat Festival in the most traditional way. During the festival, wormwood leaves were hung up on the doors, leaving the whole apartment in fragrance. The nanny also tied colored silk threads around the little girl’s wrists, which was believed to keep the child from evils and diseases. The family also had their dinner outdoors. Besides rice dumplings, realgar wine, a drink believed to be able to prevent plagues, was also on the table.

Speaking of realgar wine, a well-known legend can not be left out. Once upon a time, there were two snakes, one white and the other black, who turned themselves into dazzling beauties after thousands of years of practicing magic. They came across a young man called Xu Xian on the bank of the West Lake in Hangzhou. The white snake fell in love with Xu and they got married soon. A monk, called Fahai, saw through the alluring woman and warned Xu. Under Fahai’s instruction, Xu plied his wife with realgar wine on the Dragon Boat Festival and the woman transformed into a giant white snake, which scared Xu to death. The white snake went through many hardships and finally brought her husband back to life with a felicitous plant.

The two most important events of the festival are boat racing and eating rice dumplings, both of which involve dragon. Dragon has been an auspice symbol since the ancient times. The worship of dragon originates from people’s desire for a great harvest. A legend had it that the people at ancient times believed they were descendants of dragon so they offered sacrifices to dragon at the beginning of every fifth lunar month. They packed food with reed leaves or filled bamboos with food and then tossed them into river. They also went to visit relatives and friends in canoes. If they were in the mood, they would compete with each other in canoeing. This practice was the prototype of dragon boat racing.

Dragon Boat Festival
Teachers and students of Confucius Institute at the University Leipzig are enjoying “Zongzi”at dragon boat festival.

With the vicissitude of society, especially the accelerating urbanization in recent years, the Dragon Boat Festival, to most Chinese, has been reduced to a dumpling eating festival. The festival, in the traditional sense, does not only have a particular origin, it is also the sediment of historical culture. The customs of the festival are mostly concerned with disease prevention and health care so it is known as “hygiene festival.” The part about commemorating the patriotic poet also renders the festival a patriotism ritual that passes from generation to generation. Like other traditional festivals, the Dragon Boat Festival also provides an opportunity for people to strengthen their relations with relatives and friends.


Dragon Boat Festival

Hanging up wormwood and sweet flag leaves:
Every household hangs up wormwood and sweet flag leaves on doors to ward off evils and prevent plagues.

Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat racing:
As a traditional water sports event, Dragon Boat racing has been practiced for more than 2,000 years during the Dragon Boat Festival. The boat usually measures 20 to 30 meters and carries about 30 participants.

Dragon Boat Festival

Eating glutinous rice dumplings:
These rice dumplings are made of glutinous rice packed with bamboo or reed leaves. They can be enjoyed after being boiled. Both the shape and contents of this pyramidshaped food varies greatly in different parts of China, such as the Jiaxing dumplings in eastern Zhejiang Province and the beandumplings seasoned with salt and pepper in southwestern Sichuan Province.

Dragon Boat Festival

Wearing incense pouches:
With incense inside, the pouches are capable of sterilization and expelling insects.

Dragon Boat Festival

Wearing colored silk threads:
Tying colored silk threads around children’s wrists is believed to bring blessings and longevity.

Erecting eggs :
If you can make an egg stand erect at noon, you will be blessed with good luck for the coming year.


Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 03.
Volume III. July 2009.

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