Dragon Boat Festival


Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu (the beginning of the 5th month) Festival (more than 20 different names) falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. It is celebrated annually as the 3rd most important festival in China and boasts a history of more than 2,000 years. Notable for its educational influence, the festival associates itself with the commemoration of the patriotic poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC). It also acts as a chance for Chinese people to build their bodies and dispel diseases.


Many legends circulate around the festival but the most popular is the legend of Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan, living in the Warring States Period (476 BC - 221 BC), was a minister in the State of Chu. He supported the decision to fight against the powerful State of Qin together with the State of Qi. However, he was slandered by the aristocrat Zi Lan and was subsequently exiled by the King. In order to show his love and passion for his country, he wrote many enduring poems such as Li Sao (The Lament), Tian Wen (Asking Questions to the Heaven) and Jiu Ge (Nine Songs) and is therefore regarded as a famous poet in China's history. In 278 BC, after finishing his last masterpiece - Huai Sha (Embracing the Sand), he drowned himself in the river rather than see his country occupied and conquered by the State of Qin.

On hearing of Qu Yuan's death, all the local people nearby were in great distress. Fishermen raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body, which is said the origin of dragon boat races, and other people threw balls of sticky rice into the river to attract fish from destroying Qu Yuan's body, which is said the origin of Zongzi. Later, many people imitated these acts to show their respect for this great patriotic poet, and this practice continues today.

Because Qu Yuan died on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, people decided to commemorate him on that day every year. Dragon boat racing and eating Zongzi have become the central customs of the festival.


Ancient Chinese believed the day of Duanwu was unlucky because midsummer was just around the corner. The hot weather used to bring various diseases, which could spread rampantly. Therefore, dispelling disease and driving out evil became the main purpose of the festival. Around this purpose, a great deal of custom has formed in addition to dragon boat racing and eating Zongzi, among which

  • Drinking realgar wine;

  • Wearing a perfume pouch;

  • Tying five-colour silk thread;

  • Hanging mugwort leaves and calamus,

    are the most popular ones. 

    Other Legends

    History has witnessed more than 15 historical and legendary candidates for Dragon Boat Festival, with 3 of them won out: Qu Yuan, Wu Zixu and Cao E.

    Legend of Wu Zixu

    Despite the modern popularity of the Qu Yuan origin theory, in the former territory of the state of Wu, the festival commemorated Wu Zixu(died 484 BC). Wu Zixu was a loyal advisor whose advice was ignored by the king to the detriment of the kingdom. Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide by the king Fuchai, with his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. After his death, in places such as Suzhou, Wu Zixu is remembered during the Duanwu Festival to this day.

    Legend of Cao E

    Although Wu Zixu is commemorated in southeast Jiangsu and Qu Yuan elsewhere in China, much of Northeastern Zhejiang including the cities of Shaoxin, Ningbo and Zhoushan celebrates the memory of the  young girl Cao E (AD 130–143) instead. Cao E's father Cao Xu was a shaman who presided over local ceremonies at Shangyu. In 143, while presiding over a ceremony commemorating Wu Zixu during the Duanwu Festival, Cao Xu accidentally fell into the Shun River. Cao E, in an act of filial piety, decided to find her father in the river, searching for 3 days trying to find him. After five days, she and her father were both found dead in the river from drowning. Eight years later, in 151, a temple was built in Shangyu dedicated to the memory of Cao E and her sacrifice for filial piety. The Shun River was renamed Cao’e River in her honour.