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端午节 Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu)


《 Exploring Traditional Chinese Festivals in China》

by GuoLiang Gai and Rongpei Wang


Falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Duanwu festival was also known as the Double-Fifth Festival. It was also referred to as “Duan Yang” or “Duan Wu”. As one of the three significant traditional Chinese festivals, the other two being the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, Duanwu id universally celebrated all over Chinese.

Qu Yan 屈原

The best-known story about the Duanwu Festival commemorates Qu Yuan, the great poet who drowned himself in a river 2,000 years ago.

Born in the State of Chu during the Warring State Period, Qu Yuan become a minister in the State of Chu when he was only 22 years old. Although Qu Yuan was fully trusted by King Huai, an aristocrat name Zi Lan and a treacherous court official named Jin Shang slandered him. Subsequently, the king dismissed Qu Yuan from his position and sent him into exile.

Feeling disappointed that he was unable to serve his country, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River. It was said that the day he drowned himself was the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. His countrymen tried to rescue him, but Qu Yuan was not to be found by the time his rescuers arrived. This story is the basic of the dragon boat race, which is held annually on this day. The book sequel to Tales of Qi Xie by Wu Jun, claimed that rice would be scatted on this day into the river as a form of worshipping Qu Yuan. It is said that in the early Eastern Dynasty, a man named QU Qu from Changsha one dreamt that Qu Yuan told him that the rice thrown in the river had been eaten by river dragons. Hence if people wanted to continue doing so, rice and lily leaves should be stuffed inside bamboo tubes, or rice wrapped in reed leaves and tied with five-colored threads. This is because river dragons are afraid of lily leaves, reed leaves, and five-colored threads. Thus, people later made sacrifices to Qu Yuan in this way, and the tradition of eating zongzi wrapping with bamboo leaves and tied with five-colored threads has since survived till today.

Photo from Wikipedia

As a water sport, dragon boat race has experienced three basic forms: utilitarian, commemorative and competitive.

The Dragon Boat Race 赛龙舟

The dragon boat race is one of the traditional activities held during the Duanwu Festival. Reminiscences in Dreams of Tao An by Zhang Dai of the late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty depicted the scene of the race as countless boats, of which each had a dragon head and a dragon tail carved on its hull. Twenty strong men were seated on both sides of the boat, each holding big wooden oars. A decorated tent was set up, with flags and embroidered umbrellas both before and behind it. Drums and gongs were beaten, and a rack of weapons were display in the back cabin. Many people would watch from across the river. It was really a spectacle beyond comparison.

The dragon boat race is very common in Chinese society. For thousands of years, it has been believed that the activity is held to commemorate Qu Yuan. On the banks of the Miluo River, where Qu Yuan was said to have drowned, the boat racing ceremony is solemnly held annually on Duanwu day/ Throngs of people, dressed in new clothes, would come to the Temple of Qu Yuan to pay their respects. Then, they would go to the river to watch the dragon boat race. At the sound of the gun shot, the race would begin, and people would be cheering for the participants. In the background, firecrackers would be set off, and there would be sounds of drums and gongs.

The dragon-boating tradition has also been introduced into Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and others countries. These countries also organize grand dragon boat race on Duanwu day. In recent years, this activity has been launched in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Since 1976, Hong Kong has held the annual Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Race.

Different country has more than 10 different versions to explain the origin of the dragon boat race. One of the versions is to commemorate Wu Zixu of the State of Wu. Later, Wu Zixu died and his corpse was thrown into the river.  This happened on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

Another version was the people in the Jianhsu and Zhejiang areas, rowed fragon boats to commemorate the death of Wu Zixu.

Origin of Dragon Boat Race

Years ago, a silk painting of a man standing on a dragon boat was unearthed from a tomb in Changsha. In Zhejiang, a piece of bronze ware, showing the picture of four men in crests and rowing a dragon boat with their hands, was also found. There are also some depictions of dragon boats in ancient books, such as in Annals of Emperor Mu and Nine Songs of the Poetry of Chu. What is most interesting is the fact that Qu Yuan was the author of Nine songs, which proved that dragon boats already existed before his death. When Yiduo, a modern scholar also confirmed that this festival existed in China 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. He conducted several archaeological studies, and a number of cultural relics related to this festival were unearthed.

According to these, studies, there lived the ancient Yue people who started the Duanwu Festival. Subsequently, the recreational dragon boat race came into being, and it eventually become a traditional custom in all parts of Chinese society.

Old photo show that Dragon Boat Race.

Photo from Baidu

A Love Mystery?

A young scholar by the name of Zhu Dake, recently suggested another interpretation for the death of Qu Yuan. He inferred that Qu Yuan had been murdered by his political foes instead. According to him, since the period of Sima Qian, it has been a firm belief that Qu Yuan had drowned himself in the river. Qu Yuan had been deeply troubled by politics, and the only evidence of this was found in document, Cherish the Sand, said to have been written by him after his exile. Zhu Daku Yuan in order to prevent the relationship from developing. His commemorating Wu Zixu, the people also held a memorial ceremony for Qu Yuan.

The dragon boat race symbolized the violent scene of killing and fleeing; zongzi symbolized Qu Yuan’s traumatic experience of being thrown into the river, rice being the symbol of his body; bamboo leaves symbolized the cords binding him tightly; ad the act of throwing the zongzi into the water symbolized his drowning.


Gai, Guoliang, & Wang, Rongpei. (2008)
Exploring traditional Chinese festivals in China (1st ed.)