Dragon Boat Festival — Duanwu in China

Dragon boat

What and when is the Dragon Boat Festival?

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most ancient, important festivals in China, which is on the 5th of May of Traditional Chinese Calendar


Some fun facts about the Dragon Boat Festival


  • It had over 20 names in history;

  • It used to be considered quite lucky and unlucky in different places in China;

  • It has many versions concerning its origin; 

  • It has been celebrated in China for at least 2500 years.


How the Dragon Boat Festival is related to dragons?

In ancient China, people used to worship dragons on a specific date. 

According to Chinese Astrology, the Seven Lunar Mansions of the Azure Dragon Section move to the center of the sky. 

Hence, it was considered as an auspicious day to worship dragons, when people made dragon-shaped boats to hold grand sacrifice ceremonies. 

This date is the Dragon Boat Festival. 

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Dragon Boat Festival

What are the other famous names of the Dragon Boat Festival?


  • Duan Wu: the beginning of summer

  • Duan Yang: the most orthodox, central Yang 

  • Chong Wu: double five, the festival on the 5th of May

  • Zhong Tian: middle of the sky, since the sun is located in the highest, most central position on this day

  • Dragon Day: Azure Dragon's stars in the middle of the sky

  • Yu Lan: taking herb baths to avoid skin disease in summer


Why Dragon Boat Festival considered unlucky in some places?


Since the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), especially in northern China, the 5th of May had been considered unlucky. 


It is a cross point of Yin and Yang, and the beginning of the intense heat of summer. 


Besides, Five Poisonous Pests (scorpion, snake, gecko, centipede, toad) are extremely active on this day.


When and How is Dragon Boat Festival originated?


There are many versions concerning the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival in Chinese culture:


  • Worship dragon and pray for good luck.

  • Exorcise poisonous pests, evilness, and back luck.

  • Memorize Qu Yuan (about 340 BC — 278 BC), a capable but banished royal that sacrificed after his country had perished. 

  • Memorize Wu Zixu (about 559 BC — 484 BC), best friend of Sun Tzu, and a loyal official that was set up and executed by his King.


The original date of the Dragon Boat Festival, though in May, varied in history; in the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), it was regulated to celebrate on the 5th of May.


Customs and traditions for celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival


  • Race Dragon Boat;

  • Make and eat Zongzi (or Sticky Rice Dumplings);

  • Worship dragon, heaven, and ancestors;

  • Drink herbal teas or realgar wine;

  • Hang Chinese mugwort and calamus on doors;

  • Hang pictures of Five Poisonous Pests; 

  • Put on pictures of Zhongkui, a deity that could expel ghosts and protect people;

Emperor Zhu Jianshen's Painting "Sui Zhao Jia Zhao Tu", To Pray for Blessings in New Year

Picture of Zhongkui (Sui Zhao Jia Zhao Tu), by Chenghua Emperor Zhu Jianshen (1447 — 1487) — Palace Museum

  • Take a bath with different types of herbs and flowers;

  • Make and wear sachets that are stuffed with collected herbs, scented petals, or perfume;

  • Put on Five-Color Strings, especially to children;

  • Play competing games using collected herbs.

Women Playing Herb Competing Games (Dou Bai Cao) in Dragon Boat Festival

Women Playing Herb Competing Games (Dou Bai Cao), part of Painting "Spring Morning in the Han Palace" (Han Gong Chun Xiao Tu) by Qiu Ying (1494 — 1552) — Taipei Palace Museum


What to eat at the Dragon Boat Festival?


Zongzi or Rice Dumplings:

Glutinous rice wrapped by bamboo or reed leaves, including sweet flavors in the north and salty flavors in the south. 

Stuffing of Zongzi various too, beans, date, pork, ham, chestnut, yolk are all popular ingredients. 

Zongzi's shape could be a triangle, regular quadrangle, sharp triangle, square, etc.; a regular triangle is the most popular type now.

Zongzi or Rice Dumplings, the traditional food of Dragon Boat Festival in China

Five Yellow Food: 

Five types of food whose names include Yellow in Chinese Characters; eating them is believed could protect people from being hurt by the Five Poisonous Pests (scorpion, snake, gecko, centipede, toad).

Those Five Yellow Food are realgar wine, cucumber, leek, swamp eel or yellow croaker, and duck egg.


Xionghuangjiu or Realgar Wine:

Realgar has been used in Chinese medicine for detoxification and cure skin diseases. Hence, people used to put a slight amount of realgar in wine, and drink it on the Dragon Boat Festival. 

Nowadays, realgar wine has been replaced by rice wine.

Xionghuangjiu or Realgar Wine, the traditional food of Dragon Boat Festival in China

What to wear at the Dragon Boat Festival?


Five Color Strings:

Based on the Five Elements Theory, people make five colors (red, white, black, yellow, and green) strings and wear them on the wrist, ankle or arm, to prevent diseases and bad luck, and pray for blessings. 

The Five Color String could not be taken off, until the first rain after the Dragon Boat Festival.

Five Color Strings to wear on the Dragon Boat Festival in China

Duanwu Sachet:

Stuffed with herbs that are used to keep people healthy and drive away poisonous pests, such as Chinese mugwort and realgar, and some spices. 

Duanwu Sachet the traditional decoration to wear on the Dragon Boat Festival

Hats or clothes with Five Poisonous Pests:

Usually for kids to wear, embroidered with the Five Poisonous Pests. 

People believed that wearing them could keep their babies away from diseases and any type of hurt.

Embroidery of the Five Poisonous Pests on the Dragon Boat Festival

Tiger-head shaped hats and shoes:

Mostly for babies and toddlers to wear, wishing they could be as strong as tigers.

The tiger is believed one of the strongest, most auspicious animals that could scare evilness away and protect the kids to stay safe and sound.

Tiger-head shaped shoes