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Dragon Boat Festival

The Duanwu Jie, or the Dragon Boat Festival as it is better known in the West, is a Chinese holiday that happens on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and consists of throwing zongzi into rivers and racing dragon boats.

From looking at the racers packed together tightly in the long, slender boats with a dragon head at the fore, I would have guessed that cigarettes were a performance enhancing drug. There was around twenty rowers in each of eight, colorful dragon boats. Each team was color coordinated by their t-shirts, there was apprehension in the air, and everyone was sucking cigs as though they would give them the competitive edge over their rivals. I was at the Duanwu festival near Qinhu, in China’s Jiangsu province, and the dragon boat races were about to get underway.

The are called dragon boats, well, because they are made to look like dragons. They are essentially long, teak war canoes with a bowsprit that is carved into a dragon’s head. The body of the mythological beasts are carved or painted down the length of the boat and the tail extends behind the stern. They are impressive looking canoes, being painted bright yellow with red and green trimmings and scales all down their exteriors. But it’s my impression that these magnificent boats are only broken out once per year on this day, the double fifth.

The Duanwu Jie, which literally means “celebration of the double fifth” and is known in the west as the Dragon Boat Festival, happens on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month each year in many east and southeast Asian societies. The festival went on hiatus in mainland China from the 1940s until 2008, but it’s again a part of the country’s yearly celebrations. The Duanwu Jie is, more or less, a solar celebration, and it usually occurs sometime in mid-June, around the same time as the summer solstice. In East Asian thought the masculine energy of the sun is often associated with the dragon, hence the connection.

Dragon boats

The origin of the festival is believed to have occurred way back in ancient Chinese history, but the exact story is pretty much unknown. The depths of Chinese celebrations are often made murky by the various revisions of meaning that have occurred through the ages in the name of political maneuvering.

The popular story about the origin of the Duanwu Jie is that a poet and government official by the name of Qu Yuan, who lived at the turn of the third century BCE, was banished from the Chu royal house over a political disagreement. While in exile Qu wrote poetry and eventually drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The legend continues that the local people then tossed zongzi, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, into the river to quench the appetites of the fish in an attempt to keep them from munching on the carcass of poor Qu Yuan. The locals would row boats around in the river to scare the fish away for the same purpose, which is said to have given rise to the dragon boat race.

There is another contending tale that the Duanwu festivities began when another government adviser committed suicide in a river a couple of hundred years earlier — but it’s essentially the same story.

dragon boat

There is a lot of speculation today that the Duanwu festival is far older than either of these tales, having stemmed from a time at the early apex of China. Some believe that the festival was originally a winter wheat harvest festival, while others believe that it has its roots in dragon worship.

Whatever is the case, many Asian societies still celebrate the tradition to this day, which consists of tossing zongzi into rivers to feed the fish, the drinking of medicinal wine, and the racing of dragon boats.

Other common activities include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, and wearing perfumed medicine bags. Other traditional activities include a game of making an egg stand at noon(this “game” is one that if you stand at exactly 12.00 noon you will have luck for the next year), and writing spells. All of these activities, together with the drinking of realgar wine, were regarded by the ancients as effective in preventing disease or evil and promoting health and well-being. –Duanwu Jie, Wikipedia

A dragon boat (also dragonboat) is a human-powered watercraft traditionally made in the Pearl River delta region of China’s southern Guangdong Province out of teak wood to various designs and sizes. In other parts of China different woods are used to build these traditional watercraft. It is one of a family of Traditional Paddled Long Boats found throughout Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. Dragonboats are the basis of the team paddling sport of dragon boat racing an amateur water sport which has its roots in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers held over the past 2000 years throughout southern China. –Dragon Boat, Wikipedia

dragon boat racersEach dragon boat had a drummer in the seat closest to the bow. Between his legs sat an incredibly war drum, which he beat in a rhythmic pattern with two clubs as his boat moved through the water. With each down beat on his drum the rowers dipped their paddles into the water in unison. The faster the drumbeat, the faster the paddling.

There was a man standing in the stern of each boat with a steering oar. He controlled where the boat was going, and, apparently, needed to have a lot of balance.

The first batch of racers were now out on the open water, waiting at the starting  line. The boats would race four at a time. The teams were made up of people from the nearby villages, which would compete against each other for the pride of winning the yearly race. The gun soon fired and the boats took off.

drummer dragon boat

With each stroke of the paddlers the dragon boats cut through the water, hardly leaving any wake or ripples behind. These boats glided atop the surface of the lake so smoothly and gradually it was as though they were being towed towards the finish line rather than being rowed there.

The crowd chanted “Jia yo, jia yo” as rhythmically as as the rowers paddled, and when the boats crossed the finish line everybody erupted in cheers — as they have done here in China for thousands of years.

Filed under: Celebrations, China, Sports

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • John June 2, 2013, 6:53 am

    I’d like to go to this. Its near jiangyan, no?

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    • Wade June 3, 2013, 9:38 am

      Yes. You can take a local bus from Taizhou. Ask Hannah for what bus number it is. Maybe she will want to go too.

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