The Dragon Boat Festival once had many interesting customs. Most are no longer commonly observed, although many are still practiced in rural areas.
The most popular activity of the Dragon Boat Festival is racing dragon boats.
The origin of the festival is said to be when locals paddled out on boats to scare the fish away and retrieve Qu Yuan’s body (the patriotic poet who drowned himself in the Miluo River when the Chu State fell in 278 BC). The races are a symbol of the attempts to rescue and recover the body of Qu Yuan.
The dragon boat race custom started in southern China, where the fifth lunar day of the fifth lunar month was selected as a totem ceremony. The dragon was the main symbol on the totem, because the Chinese believe that they are sons of the dragon. Later the Chinese connected this ceremony with the Duanwu Festival. This festival activity is only held in southern China, where it has varying levels of popularity. Dragon Boat Race events are popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Dragon boat racing has become an international event. The sport is popular in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other countries. Some of the events are held during July, August, or September, and not held during the Dragon Boat Festival. You can check the relevant websites for the schedules. Read more on dragon boat racing.
It is a tradition for the Chinese to eat zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi is made differently in different areas of China.
Historical records show that people used wild rice leaves to wrap millet flour dumplings into the shape of ox horns, and then placed them in bamboo to cook.
During every Dragon Boat Festival many Chinese families follow the custom of eating zongzi. People in the north enjoy zongzi with dates, while people in the south prefer mixed ingredients, such as meat, sausages, and eggs. This custom is not only very popular in China, it is also practiced in Korea, Japan, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Read more on Zongzi.
Many contagious diseases and plagues were said to originate during the fifth lunar month when the Dragon Boat Festival takes place. Chinese people, especially children, made incense bags and hung them on their necks to avoid catching contagious diseases and to keep evil spirits away. Incense bags are made from a variety of sewn bags and include the powders of calamus, wormwood, and realgar, and other fragrant items. This tradition has been mostly abandoned.
There is an old saying: “Hang willow branches at Qingming Festival and hang calamus and wormwood at Duanwu Festival.”
On Dragon Boat Festival people often put calamus and wormwood leaves on their doors and windows to repel insects, flies, fleas, and moths from the house. Hanging these plants on doors or windows is also believed to dispel evil, and bring health to the family especial the kids.
On the Dragon Boat Festival it is a taboo in Beijing to fetch water from a well, because the water might be poisonous. Therefore, people fetch water on the day before the festival. Vendors hawk cherries and mulberries, as people believe that eating these two fruits can prevent the unconscious consumption of flies throughout the year. All food stores sell the “Five-Poison Cake,” a rose pie on which the images of the five most poisonous creatures (scorpion, frog, spider, centipede, and snake) are inscribed.
The custom of eating millet rice is popular in some parts of northern China.
Zouping County is situated in central north Shandong Province, and is adjacent to the Yellow River to its north. On the Dragon Boat Festival, people of Zouping County must drink a cup of wine after they awake, as an exorcism practice.
In Rizhao children must wear a bracelet made of seven colored threads, and throw it into the rain water of the first rain after the Dragon Boat Festival.
In Linqing boys under the age of seven must wear a necklace made of wheat straw, while their female counterparts must wear a pomegranate flower on their head and yellow cloth shoes made by their mother. The five most poisonous insects are drawn with a Chinese brush on the surface of this shoe, representing the killing of these poisonous insects using the power of deified Qu Yuan (a great poet and statesman of ancient China).
In Jimo people wash their faces with dew on the morning of the Dragon Boat Festival.
In Jiezhou men and women wear wormwood leaves as a symbol of ridding themselves of disease. Children wear necklaces made of five colored threads to symbolize chaining the flood dragon for Qu Yuan.
In Xizhou villagers make a sacrifice to the Dragon King by hanging magic papers in their farmland.
In Huanren County the Dragon Boat Festival is also called “Red Door Day”.
In Dingxiang County students present gifts to their teachers.
In Lu'anfu people use wheat flour to make “white dumplings”, instead of rice dumplings (zongzi).
In Xingping County small rice dumplings are packaged in silk with little dolls sewn on the surface.
In Tongguan County calamus, wormwood, and paper cattle are pasted on doors to keep out disease.
On the Dragon Boat Festival, people in Jingningzhou pick roses and use the nectar to make maltose.
In Zhenyuan County fragrant fans, silk clothes, handkerchiefs, and wormwood tigers are given to newly married couples. Students, together with their fathers or brothers, invite their teachers to dinner.
In Zhang County shepherd boys make a sacrifice to the god of the mountains, and firewood is piled up and burned before daybreak.
In Shizhu County, four people work as a group and use two bamboo poles to carry a big square desk covered with a red carpet. On that carpet sits a bamboo Taoist priest riding a tiger. The sound of gongs and drums accompany these four people as they march in the street.
In Chengdu, in the ancient time, people first bought plums and then went to the Southeast Gate Tower. On the tower people sat both high on the tower and down below and threw the plums at each other. This activity has always attracted tens of thousands of spectators. However, in the 21st year of the reign of Qing Emperor Guangxu (1895), this activity created a conflict between the local people and foreign priests and was abandoned.
In Leshan and Xinjin big trade fairs are held during the dragon boat races, while in some parts of Mianyang and Suining, the custom on the Dragon Boat Festival is to eat steamed dumplings, a food similar to zongzi, but these are wrapped with steamed powder skin.
On the Dragon Boat Festival, people in Jiading County, both rich and poor, buy and cook drumfish.
In Yizheng County there is an old saying: “Pawn trousers to buy drumfish.”
In Nanjing each family adds a little realgar and two goose-eyed coins to a bowl of clean water, and then washes their eyes with that water to prevent eye disease throughout the year.
In Wujin County people hold dragon boat races at night, with a small lantern hanging on the four corners of each boat. The sound of thexiao (/sshyaoww/ a Chinese bamboo flute) and drum, together with the voice of people singing, accompany the races at all times.
Gaoyou has many customs, such as wearing a necklace made of five colored threads, pasting magic labels of the five most poisonous creatures, setting off realgar firecrackers, eating “the twelve red dishes" (cooked in soy source or a dark colored liquid, e.g. realgar wine and salted duck egg). The children hang in front of their chest a small bag weaved with colorful strings that carries an egg.
In Fuzhou wives present graveclothes, shoes and socks, rice dumplings and fans to their parents-in-law as a gift.
In Jianyang County, Dragon Boat Festival is the day when the legendary 'King of Medicine' puts his medicine in the open air to cure the air. On that day common people make sauce.
In Shanghang County small rafts are tied with reeds and made into the shape of a dragon for the dragon boat races.
In Xianyou County, after the dragon boat races, people throw magic papers into Huxiao Pond to mourn the soldiers of General Qi Jiguang who drowned in 1543 during the Ming Dynasty.
In Shaowufu, before the Dragon Boat Festival, women make small bags with red silk and put pieces of magic paper inside of them. They also make two rhombic decorations with five colored threads and tie the decorations to their hairpins with colorful strings. Little girls tie the decorations to their arms.
In Conghua County people wash their eyes and faces with water mixed with burned magic papers, and then pour that water onto the road as a symbol of getting rid of disasters.
In Xinxing County people go to the nearest temple to accompany the parade of the Buddha statue. Shamen sprinkle magic water and paste magic papers onto the Buddha statue as a way to expel evil.
In Shicheng County children fly kites as a way to make disasters fly away.
In Jianchangfu people bathe in special water made from a hundred herbs to prevent scabies.
In Xinchang County people drink realgar wine or cinnabar wine on the Dragon Boat Festival.
In Huanggang the people of Bahe Town dress up like ancient Chinese farmers, wear flowers on their heads, and beat gongs to drive out disease.
In Yichang the people in Zigui County hold dragon boat races, and these activities become extraordinarily magnificent on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. Sacrifice and evocation ceremonies in memory of Qu Yuan are also held. On the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, as a way to wash away filth and get rid of disease, children are bathed with water that has sat out in the sunshine for a long time.
The 15th of the 5th lunar month is called the 'Major Dragon Boat Festival', while the 25th is called the 'Late Dragon Boat Festival'. On both of these days people eat rice dumplings and drink calamus wine.
The custom of drinking realgar wine is popular in the Yangtze River Valley.
In You County rich families with a pregnant woman drop auspicious coins into wine and then put the wine on the head of a dragon boat and pray for the successful birth of the baby. Poor families with a pregnant woman prepare chicken and wine, and sacrifice paper money instead of using the wine and auspicious coins (which are costly).
In Yuezhoufu people hold dragon boat races to avoid disasters and to get rid of disease. They also make straw boats and let them float away as a symbol of expelling the God of Plagues.
During Dragon Boat Festival most places in Hainan Province holds a dragon boat race.
In Ding'an, a town that dates from the Chenghua Period of the Ming Dynasty, and has been well preserved, there are two long and gaily colored dragon boats standing on the stone steps inside the door that opens to this five-hundred-year-old town.
Ancestors of Hainan Province started the custom of dragon boat racing on the Dragon Boat Festival. The river they use for these races is Nandu River. Known as the town of coconuts and being the hometown of Song Qingling (a great patriotic, democratic, and communist leader of China),
Wenchang enjoys a favorable location, with its three sides surrounded by sea. Since ancient times residents of Wenchang have held dragon boat races and prayed to God for blessings during the Dragon Boat Festival.
The people of Hainan bathe themselves with “holy water” or herbal water and, similar to the customs of the Mainland, also hold dragon boat races, eat rice dumplings, and hang calamus and wormwood in front of their houses.
In Taiwan common people hang calamus, wormwood, and a picture of Zhong Kui (a Chinese immortal who can bless and protect a mortal's house) in front of their houses. Adults drink realgar wine, while children adorn themselves with fragrant small bags. All of this is said to protect human beings from evil.
For businessmen the Dragon Boat Festival is a good business opportunity to promote folk cultures. They rack their brains for ways to sell more rice dumplings. In Taiwan various unique types of rice dumplings are produced. Common people like to show their creative, home-made rice dumplings.
In the Tainan area people do not eat rice dumplings. Instead they eat fried glutinous rice balls sprinkled with sesame seeds. This custom has something to do with Zheng Chenggong (a hero of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) who recaptured Taiwan from Dutch colonialists).
Similar to the Mainland, the most popular and joyful activity during the Dragon Boat Festival in Taiwan Province is also dragon boat racing. Grand dragon boat races are held on each major river in Taiwan.