Dragon Boat Festival is a time of great reverie and traditional cultural activities in China. From the great food and unusual traditions to where to see some good-spirited competition, get to know the Dragon Boat Festival with our helpful guide.
Dragon Boat Festival (duanwujie) has been held in the Middle Kingdom for over 2000 years. It lands on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar, and the country takes a break to watch ferocious boats speed down rivers and lakes, and eat a traditional treat known as “zongzi.”
There are several stories depicting the origins of the festival, and one of the most popular yarns is that of the poet Qu Yuan.
According to legend, Qu Yuan was a member of the Chu royal house where he served in a high office. When the king allied with a rival state of Qin, Qu opposed and was promptly banished under accusation of treason. While exiled, Qu Yuan wrote poetry which became legendary all across China. When the rival state of Qin captured the Chu capital, it caused Qu Yuan such distress that he committed suicide by throwing himself into the Miluo River.
The loyal citizens of the city searched for Qu’s body but could not find it. They threw rice balls into the river for the fish, hoping they would choose to eat that and not the body of Qu Yuan.
What to Eat
Remember those rice balls people threw into the river? Well they eventually evolved into the modern day Dragon Boat snack we know as zongzi. If you are in China around the time of the festival you will see zongzi everywhere. They are traditionally made of glutinous sticky rice with a centre of either meat or candied fruit. The package is then wrapped in bamboo, tied with string and boiled.
Here in the WildChina Office, we celebrated the upcoming festival with zongzi and zhajiangmian (a traditional Beijing noodle dish) made by our favorite Auntie Zhang.
Where to Watch Dragon Boat Races
It’s important to note that Dragon Boat Festival weekend is a national holiday in China. A large number of domestic travelers will be on the move and popular tourist sites will be very crowded. If you’re not looking to immerse yourself in the Dragon Boat festivities, we recommend avoiding travel in China during this time. That being said, if you are in the Middle Kingdom and looking for somewhere to see Dragon Boat Races, here are some of our favorites.
Xixi Wetland, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
Hangzhou has an annual International Dragon Boat Race in the Xixi wetlands, just 5 kilometers away from the West Lake. You can feast your eyes on the fancifully designed boats from a high pavilion, sipping high-quality tea, and enjoying the well-known Chinese operas that play in the background.
After the race, locals celebrate the festival with zongzi making competitions and you will have the option to enjoy the ‘five yellow foods,’ which consist of croaker fish, cucumber, yellow finless eel, salted duck egg yolk, and realgar wine (yellow wine).
You can also witness Shaoxing Opera, or a Chinese boxing show held on a boat!
Qingshui River, Miao, Guizhou
The Miao ethnic minority people really don’t hold back when it comes to their dragon boat festivities! Besides the boat racing itself, you’ll also see horse racing, bullfighting, drum-beating, and reed-pipe fueled singing and dancing.
Miao Dragon Boat Festival tradition expects locals to do six things:
1, Everyone must finish planting all rice before the festival. 2, Rivals and enemies must shake hands and work together during the contest. 3, There must be a ritual that involves grass, umbrellas, rice, paper money, and a white rooster being sacrificed. 4, Each dragon boat team must include 36 strong sailors, and an elected teenage boy called a gutou. 5, Each village must build their boat in the traditional way and 6, upon reaching the terminus, a duck must be freed into the water for all participants to catch. Talk about attention to details!
After the excitement of the race, Miao boys and girls will sing and dance until sunrise.
Photo by Matteo X via Flickr
Miluo River, Yueyang, Hunan
If you’re in for a classic Dragon Boat Festival experience, then the Miluo River is the place to be. This is the exact river Qu Yuan was said to have met his fate. You can get to know the town, join seminars held on the culture that spawned from Qu Yuan’s creative works, and viewing painting and calligraphy created in his memory.
Happy Dragon Boat Festival from your friends at WildChina!