Origin of the Festival

Origin of the Dragon Boat Festival

The Legend of Qu Yuan

The proper name of the festival is actually The Duan Wu (Tuen Ng in Cantonese) Festival. Dragon Boat racing, which is the main activity linked to the festival, is held each year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar Calendar to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan (pronounced Chu Yuan), a well-loved statesman and poet, who lived in the Chinese kingdom of Chu more than 2,000 years ago.

The government of the Kingdom of Chu was a corrupt one and after jealous rivals falsely accused him of treason, Qu Yuan was banished. In despair, and perhaps as a final gesture against the government, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi Lo River.

The festival's distinctive dragon boat races are a re-enactment of the frantic, vain attempts of the fishermen who rowed out to save him.

Special rice-and-meat dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves (zong zi) are eaten at this time of the year. They symbolize those that were thrown into the river to prevent fish from eating Qu Yuan's body, and to appease his spirit.

The Legend of Rice Dumplings

Although the traditional rice dumplings stem from the legend of Qu Yuan, their distinctive pyramid shape and leaf wrappings come from another legend. In about 40BC a high-ranking official revealed to fishermen that their offerings were being eaten by the River Dragon and suggested that they wrap the rice in leaves first and then tie them with the lucky five-coloured threads which the dragon monster dreaded. The fishermen followed his advice and used palm leaves to wrap the rice into pyramidal dumplings, and named them zongbecause zong sounds like the Chinese word for "palm".

Today, zong zi are wrapped in bamboo leaves. Popular varieties include glutinous rice with savoury meat and beans, sweet, or salty bean-filled dumplings, and the small, yellow-green type made of glutinous rice preserved in lye.

[Quoted from the publication HK International Dragon Boat Festival '95

Editor's Notes:

  1. Much more details about the origin and rites of the Dragon Boat Festival can be found in our Chinese page
  2. The text above shows that the Western Name "Dragon Boat Festival" is actually not a good one for the Duan Wu Je (or 'Tuen Ng Jit'). (For the meaning of the Chinese characters,please view Adrian Lee's e-mail from Canada for reference). (Ed. 2000/6/25) [ Adrian is now the vice-president of IBDF ]

    Please also view Alvin's page for reference on this topic. 

  3. Foreigners usually distinguish competitive dragon boats as so-called Hong Kong style or Taiwanese (Kaoh Shiang) style. The Hongkong style (actually the boats are similar or the same in Mainland China) is more popular in international races which usually specify the use of wooden boats of medium size, while the Taiwanese style boats are bigger and heavier and has much bigger dragon heads. TheTaiwanese style of racing , which is not allowed in any IDBF sanctioned championships, also requiry a "flag catcher" up front, lying on the Dragon's head and pull a flag out of a marker buoy at the finish point and wave it to signify the finish. The first flag up wins. Those dropping the flag will add 10 seconds (depending on organiser) to the finishing. [If the catcher drop in water with the flag in hand, then only the tail will count the finish ]. Pleasse view Taiwanese Government's official Duen Wu Festival site for video clip (http://www.gio.gov.tw/info/festival_c/dragon/dragon.htm) (ed. 2001/5/1, revised 2003.2.5)

    see note (4) below 

  4. Alvin' message mentioning the Taiwanese dragon boats on the E-group :2002/6/11 :

    "Portland uses Taiwanese flag catching boats. The only other places in North America that uses them are Iowa and Hawaii. The boats are 40'6" long, 5'4" wide and weigh 1760 pounds (800kg). They hold 8M, 8F, 1 flag catcher, 1 steersperson, and 1 drummer.

    The flag catcher is key in close races. S/he does nothing until the end of the race. However, if they miss the flag, the team is disqualified. In close races a flag catcher can grab the flag and wait for the boat movement to pull the flag or they can yank it out. The difference can be up to one second......"

    Subject: [dragonboats] Happy Dragon Boat Day 
    From: "alvin@alvin.org
    Reply-To: dragonboats-owner@yahoogroups.com 
    To: dragonboats@yahoogroups.com