Celebrating Harmony and Virtue: The Dragon Boat Festival

June 1, 2020 Updated: June 1, 2020

Wrapped in bamboo leaves, the pyramid-shaped sticky rice dumpling, or the so-called Zongzi in Chinese, opens people’s imagination to Duanwu, commonly referred to as the Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday marked as the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. 

Having an intangible cultural heritage, Duanwu can chase some of its traditions back as far as the Xia Dynasty circa 2000 B.C. With every emerging new dynasty, the culture of Duanwu incorporated more depth and virtue, in the forms of historical records and folktales. 

Inside the Palace 

Duanwu arrives before the intense wave of summer heat. On this day, emperors from dynasties past would bestow new suits on the courtiers to accommodate the changing weather. Captured in a poem by the poet Du Fu, the custom-made suit carried a “delightful fragrance”; its fabric was “as soft as a breeze, and as light as a snowflake.” He expresses sheer joy for the impeccable quality and the consideration put into his gift, as it bears the benevolence of the emperor. 

During the Tang Dynasty, emperors altered the tradition and proceeded to gift the officials black-jewelry-adorned belts. As the belts were tough and durable, the emperor expected his courtiers to be faithful, courageous, and able to withstand the test of time.

On one Duanwu during his rule, Taizong, the emperor of the Tang, gifted his two advisers paper fans painted with his own calligraphy. He told them to “fan in clear breeze that brings forth virtuous practices.” This story soon became a widely praised tale both inside and outside of the palace, as more commoners adopted fan-gifting, which led to the popular tradition of buying fans around the month of Duanwu ever since. As people carried around their fans, they also delivered Emperor Taizong’s aspiration to bring forth good virtues. 

Besides fan-gifting, other customs that started in the royal courts have also come to entertain the entire country, often taking different forms than in the palace. 

Among the Common People 

Throughout much of Chinese history, celebrations for the Duanwu festival outside of the palace formed another captivating scene. 

As the sun broke at dawn, families would start to prepare for the day. The warming weather acted as a breeding ground for diseases, so the adults in the household hung up mugwort and tied together calamus as ways to expel evilness. Children often wore sachets made of traditional Chinese herbs for the same reason. On this day, households and villages overflowed with the fresh smells of herbs. 

Outside, the sun gradually arrived overhead. The river seemed especially inviting, as the dragon boats prepared weeks in advance finally greeted the crowd. The newly decorated boats were iridescent under the sun; each “dragon head” held firm up above the water, with its “eyes” vibrant as crystals and its “eyebrows” bold as brush. Amidst each “dragon torso” would sit 20 young rowers, holding the paddles at hand, all nervously waiting to start. 

Activities of the 12 months
As the fifth lunar month arrives before the harvest season, people around the country enjoy some rare leisure time, as portrayed by a painter in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). “Activities of the 12 Months: The Fifth Lunar Month.” (National Palace Museum)

On the waterfront, an excited sea of people chatted and laughed, looking forward to the race. Restaurants would serve signature seafood, or prepared drinks for viewers wanting to enjoy a feast along with the visual sensations. All of a sudden, signal flags waved, and the race started. Conversations ceased, drinks were put down, and breaths were held. Eyes followed every paddle, as hearts pounded with each splash of water from the paddles. 

The five-colored streamers fluttered in the wind as the dragon boats engaged in a fierce competition. Once a boat came into the lead, cheers and screams took over the waterfront; when a boat fell behind the others, the onlookers held their breath, clenching their teeth, hoping to contribute that effort toward the boats lagging behind. At times when each boat was at par with the others, the viewers’ eyes were wide open, hoping not to miss a single instant. Alongside the blinkless audience were the sounds of deafening gongs and drums, livening up the game further. On the water, rowers paddled tirelessly, and each “dragon” proceeded with no hesitation. 

Accompanied by cheering screams and percussion beats, a winner crossed the finish line, perhaps merely by seconds ahead of the others. Many in the audience would shout in delight while others looked away in grief, stumbling to leave. On the horizon, the sky donned a stunning cloak of colors it borrowed from the dragon boats, while the sun slowly faded from sight along the sky-water edge. The river was once again as peaceful as ever.

shooting the rice dough
“Duanyang Gushi Tu,” by Xu Yang, is a series depicting the traditions of the Duanwu festival. The opening scene is a painting of “shooting the rice dough.” (Public Domain)
five colored silk threads
Another Duanwu festival tradition is the “five colored silk threads,” symbolizing the Five Elements; it was believed that this tradition brought wellness and harmony. (Public Domain)
hanging mugwort
On the morning of Duanwu, families hung up mugwort to bring forth harmony and cast out evil spirits. (Public Domain)

Origins of Duanwu

Qu Yuan is the most well-known figure associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. As stated in the “Records of the Grand Historian,” Qu was a patriotic scholar and top official in the state of Chu during the Warring-States Period (475–221 B.C.). As a faithful official, Qu made numerous attempts to advise the king that meritocracy was a necessary measure to take toward strengthening the state. This angered the disloyal nobility; they accused Qu of treason and soon had him banished.

Not long after, the state of Chu was conquered. Qu, who couldn’t bear to witness his beloved country being sabotaged, tied himself to a rock and drowned in a river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the present-day Duanwu festival. 

According to folklore, as soon as the Chu people learned about the incident, they rushed into their boats and paddled fiercely, hurrying to find Qu in time to save him, only to come back with no results. Heartbroken, people sailed back and forth to chase away fish, preventing them from consuming Qu’s body. In the meantime, people also threw clumps of rice wrapped together with eggs into the river to distract fish, for the same reason. Zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings, soon evolved from this practice. To commemorate this righteous scholar, the people of Chu established the traditions of dragon boat racing and making Zongzi every year on this day, and it is still practiced in many parts of China today. 

Qu Yuan
Many defining elements of the Duanwu traditions trace back to the tragic death of Qu Yuan, who was a faithful adviser to the king of Chu during the Warring-States Period. After Zhao Mengfu’s paintings for “Nine Songs.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Not only is the Duanwu festival symbolic for its folktales regarding virtuous figures, but it is also representative of ancient science and its perspectives. Up until the mid-20th century, the time of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the people of China have always believed in and respected the harmony between heaven and earth. According to the “Compendium of Materia Medica,” the monumental volume of Chinese herbology written by Li Shizhen, medicines decocted on the day of Duanwu show miraculous efficacy, and it is especially so of those herbs gathered under the midday sun. This is attributable to the distribution of yin and yang at different times of the year. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Duanwu leans overwhelmingly toward the “yang” side, which is often symbolized by energy, light, and strength. Families thus take advantage of this ideal timing to detoxify and cast out evil spirits. 

The name “Duanwu” breaks down into “duan,” meaning the beginning, and “wu,” which indicates midday and is a homonym of the Chinese character for “five.” Thus Duanwu literally refers to the “first day-five of the fifth month,” embodying a new beginning, where the change of seasons leads to a burst of exuberance among all living things. 

Though commonly known as the “Dragon Boat Festival,” Duanwu is representative of much more. Traditional practices probe into our relationship with heaven and earth, while stirring tales conveying righteousness prompt our self-reflection. As a holiday symbolic of the civilization it bears, Duanwu is the start not only of a new season but also of a fresh, new perspective. 

Janet Ma and translated by Minghui Wang into English, this article is republished with permission from Elite Magazine.