Colorful Dragon Boat Festival Drums Up International Celebrations

Scout Deere | 6-18-2018

Every year, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (usually in June), people all over the world take out their rowing paddles for the ancient tradition Chinese Dragon Boat Festival; a time of seasonal celebration, good luck and good food.

Legendary Origin

This day has various origin stories, but a popular one states that the Dragon Boat Festival is a commemoration of the life and death of Qu Yuan, a poet known for his patriotism and contributions to classical Chinese verse. Once the main advisor for the King of Chu, Qu Yuan fell from grace when his rival courtiers spoke poorly of him without his knowledge. These rumors caused the king to not trust Qu Yuan’s advice, ultimately resulting in the loss of his throne and eventual imprisonment.  Qu Yuan was banished to the south of the Yangtze River, where he spent his remaining time studying folk legends, which continued to influence his poetry.


Eventually, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan learned that the state of Qin had captured Ying, the capital city.  It is believed that the thought of witnessing the fall of his beloved country, combined with his despair over being exiled, lead Qu Yuan to drown himself by wading into the Miluo River. The local people, who thought highly of Qu Yuan, raced in their boats to try to save him. When they realized he was gone, they threw rice dumplings into the river to keep the fish away from his body while also rowing their longboats and beating their drums to scare the fish away; originating the legend of the Dragon Boat Festival.


Qu Yuan’s death also shares in anniversary remembrances in certain areas of China with Wu Zixu and Cao E,  other legendary people commemorated during the festival. Today, observers stuff rice inside bamboo stalks and toss them into the river as an offering.

Important Symbols and Traditions

  • Zongzi – A steamed rice dumpling filled and wrapped in leaves. While dates tend to be the most common filling, it’s not unheard of for zongzi to be filled with egg, meat, or fruits.  These dumplings are popular during the Dragon Boat Festival.
  • Calamus and Moxa – Two plants that are usually hung up on the front door to ward off evil spirits.
  • Realgar Wine – Drank during the festival as a form of good luck and to ensure good health.
  • Spice Bags – Often colorful and embroidered, these bags are believed to drive away evil spirits and bring good fortune.
  • Zhong Kui – A character in Chinese mythology, he is known to be a vanquisher of evil beings and his image is often hung up in homes over the festival to scare away bad spirits.

Along with eating good food and warding away bad spirits, many people compete is the Dragon Boat races. These long, human-powered boats share the appearance of a dragon and are raced across the river to the beat of a drum, the “heartbeat” of the dragon. Before the race begins, there is an honored tradition of painting the eyes of the dragon onto the boat to “liven it” prior to racing. Large dragon boats hold 18 to 20 people with smaller boats having a company of 8 to 10 people.


Author: Scout Deere

Scout is the Marketing Communications intern for the Lewer Agency. A senior at Oklahoma State, she studies Strategic Communications and plans to obtain her degree in December of 2018. Scout’s key focuses include public relations, marketing, and crisis communication.