One of the many colourful festivals to mark the Chinese Calendar is that of Duanwu Festival, known to the rest of the world as the Dragon Boat Festival.

Falling on the 7th of June, the Dragon Boat festival is China’s biggest celebration in the summer, falling on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month, and most families make a trip to a river or lake to watch hundreds of decorated dragon-shaped boats race across the water.

So what happens on this day and what is the history behind this exciting event?

The story behind Dragon Boat Festival has two different strands, the more traditional, lesser known, meaning of the day is a day for hygiene. Many herbs and natural pesticides, insecticides and fragrant flowers are used to dispel diseases, bugs like mosquitos and illness. However the most famous story begins with the life of Qu Yuan, a much-revered poet and minister from the period of 340 – 278 BC). This time is often called the ‘Warring States’ period as the then seven states (Chu, Qi, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin), which were once united, jostled to become the most powerful.

Qu Yuan came from the state of Chu, the biggest state of the time and felt strongly about his country. He was one of the closest advisors to the king and told him that to remain powerful, the state of Chu needed to ally with Qi to fight against the most powerful state, Qin.

However, a number of officials and jealous members of the court did not like Qu Yuan’s position, so forced the king into believing he was slanderous and pushed him into exile. Whilst away from his home, Qu Yuan wrote poetry about his love of China and many of his works are still popular today. The most famous of these poems is ‘Li Sao’ (the Lament). 

Qu Yuan spent his time in exile writing poetry about his love of China, wandering the wilderness and understanding local customs around him. Eventually, news reached him that Qin had conquered the capital city of Chu. Hearing this sent him falling into depression and he took his life by drowning in the Miluo River.

The people of Chu were fond of Qu Yuan and we horrified when they heard the news. They rushed to the river, taking out boats to try and find his body. When there was nothing to be found, the locals threw lumps of rice into the river so the fish would eat that and now Qu Yuan’s body. This tradition has continued today, along with a number of others to commemorate his passing.

Traditions for Dragon Boat Festival

The most popular activity during Dragon Boat Festival, as you may have guessed from the name, is to watch boats shaped like dragons. Instead of looking for the body of Qu Yuan however, nowadays the biggest activity is boat racing as long, dragon shaped canoes streak across the water.

Many people do still throw rice in the river to feed the fish too, but this tradition has transformed so now rice is not only thrown in the river, but also eaten in the form of yongzi, a sticky rice cake wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves which is filled with sweet filling such as red bean.

This is coupled with a small glass of realgar wine – whilst the idea of a glass of wine sounds nice, in the past, realgar was used as an insecticide and to ward of evil spirits, . Doctors warn that it is a little bit poisonous, so it is not advised to drink too much!

The festival has many traditions which differ region to region, in some places strong smelling flowers are hung up to ward off bad spirits and mosquitos, in other places, Dragon Boat Festival commemorates a girl who died trying to find her father who had drowned in the river – ask your Breadies what they traditionally do for Dragon Boat Festival!