Dragon Boat Festival: boat races, zongzi, and a patriot poet

October 06, 2010 | Posted by Chris

A dragon boat race in Singapore, above, commemorates the Dragon Boat Festival.

One of China's most famous traditional holidays, the Dragon Boat Festival has a long history and special customs, including dragon boat races and eating zongzi. The holiday each year falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.


According to its legend, the Dragon Boat Festival memorializes a patriotic Chinese poet, Qu Yuan. He lived in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). At that time, China had fallen into a state of fragmentation and conflict. Qu Yuan, who served as a minister to the Zhou Emperor, was wise, articulate, and loved by the common people. He did his best to fight against rampant corruption that plagued the court, but he earned the envy and fear of other officials, so he was apprehended and exiled. In exile, he traveled, taught and wrote poems. After hearing the news that Zhou had been defeated by the Qin Kingdom, he threw himself into the Miluo River in despair.

His last poem reads:

  • Many a heavy sigh I have in my despair,
  • Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time.
  • I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix chariot,
  • And waited for the wind to come,
  • to sour up on my journey.

The legend continues: as he was so loved by the people, fishermen rushed out in the river in long boats to scare away fish and throw Zongzi into the river so that they wouldn't eat Qu Yuan's body.

Dragon Boat Races

From this legend comes the tradition of dragon boats, which are supposed to resemble the boats of the fishermen that rushed out to protect Qu Yuan's drowned body. Nowadays boat races are held during the holiday throughout the world -- Hong Kong, for example, is known for its grand dragon boat races. Called "dragon boats" because they are shaped as such, competing teams row their boats forward to a drumbeat in an effort to reach the finish line first.

Zong Zi

Zongzi, above, is rice with filling wrapped in corn leaves. It is the traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Zong zi is the traditional food associated with the Dragon Boat Festival -- you'll recall that, according to legend, zong zi was thrown into the water to feed the fish so that they wouldn't eat Qu Yuan's body. Zong zi is a glutinous rice ball with four angular sides. It usually has a filling and is wrapped in corn leaves. The fillings can be egg, beans, dates, fruits, sweet potato, walnuts, mushrooms, meat, or a combination of them. It is generally steamed. For traditionalists, eating Zong zi is a necessary part of Dragon Boat Festival, and they can be made by oneself or bought from a supermarket.

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