Dragon Boat Festival Customs

The Dragon Boat Festival once had many interesting customs that are no longer commonly observed, although they are still practiced in rural areas.

Dragon Boat Racing

The most popular activity of the Dragon Boat Festival is racing dragon boats. The locals who paddled out on boats to scare the fish away and retrieve Qu Yuan’s body marked the origin of dragon boat racing. The races are a symbol of the attempts to rescue and recover the body of Qu Yuan.

The Dragon Boat Race custom may have started in southern China, where the fifth lunar day of the fifth lunar month was selected as the 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 custom with the Duanwu Festival, since this festival is the only one in southern China – and may be why the Dragon Boat Race is not that popular in China today. We can experience annual Dragon Boat Race events in Honk Hong and Taiwan, and the picture shows a person lying on the top of the dragon head on a boat in preparation for catching the target flag to win the race.

The Dragon Boat Race has become an international event. The sport is popular in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, Honk Hong, 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

Eating Zongzi

the dragon boat festivalZongzi

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 Zizania caduciflora leaves to wrap millets 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 accepted by foreign countries such as Korea, Japan, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Read more on Zongzi

Wearing Incense Bags

Many contagious diseases and plagues were said to originate during the fifth lunar month. 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 Acorus, Artemisia, and Realgar, and other fragrant items.

Inserting Acorus and Artemisia on Doors or Windows

There is an old saying, “Inserting willow branches in Qingming Festival and inserting the Acorus and Artemisia in Duanwu Festival.” On Dragon Boat Day, people often put Acorus and Artemisia leaves on their doors and windows to repel insects, flies, fleas, and moths from the house. These leaves have an antipoison function and can prevent epidemics. Women often turned the glossy, evergreen, and lush Acorus leaves into floral hoops to wear.

During ancient times, the Dragon Boat Festival was also a “health festival,” a time when people cleaned yards, hung Acorus and Artemisia leaves on their doors and windows, and drank Realgar wine to stay healthy. Also on this day, some climbed mountains in search of Chinese medicines.

Regional Customs

Beijing

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 insects (namely, scorpion, frog, spider, centipede, and snake) are inscribed.

Shandong Province

Zouping County is situated at the top and center of Shandong Province, and is adjacent to the Yellow River, which is 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-color 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 Qu Yuan (a great poet and statesman of ancient China). In Jimo, people wash their face with dew on the morning of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Shanxi Province

There are several customs on Dragon Boat Festival. In Jiezhou, men and women wear argy wormwood leaves as a symbol of ridding themselves of disease. Children wear necklaces made of five-color threads to symbolize chaining the flood dragon for Qu Yuan. In Xizhou, villages 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,” which is traded for the rice dumplings of others as a custom.

Shaanxi Province

On the Dragon Boat Festival, the prefecture of ancient Xing’anzhou leads his entourage to watch the dragon boat races. In Xingping County, small rice dumplings are packaged in silk with little dolls sewn on the surface. In Tongguan County, calami, argy wormwood, and paper-made cattle are pasted on doors to keep out disease.

Gansu Province

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-made tiger 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 mountains, and firewood is piled up and burned before daybreak.

Jiangsu Province

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 Xiao (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-color threads, pasting magic labels of the five most poisonous insects, setting off realgar firecrackers, eating “twelve red dishes (cooked in soy source or a dark colored liquid, e.g., realgar wine and salted duck egg)”. As for the children, they hang in front of their chest a small bag weaved with colorful strings that carries in it a selective egg.

Sichuan Province

In Shizhu County in east Chongqing, 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-made Taoist priest riding a tiger. The sound of gongs and drums accompany these four people as they march in the street. In the olden days in West Sichuan Province, especially in Chengdu, 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 dumplings but these are wrapped with steamed powder skin.

Jiangxi Province
In Jianchangfu, people bathe in special water made from a hundred kinds of herbs to prevent scabies. In Xinchang County, people drink realgar wine or cinnabar wine on the Dragon Boat Festival.

Hubei Province
In Huanggang, the people of Bahe Town dress up like ancient Chinese farmers, wear flowers on their head, 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 May 13, 14, and 15 of the lunar calendar. Moreover, 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 the filth and get rid of disease, children are bathed with water that has sat out in the sunshine for a long time. May 15 of lunar calendar is also the “Major Dragon Boat Festival,” while May 25 is the “Late Dragon Boat Festival.” On both of these days, people eat rice dumplings and drink calamus wine.

Hunan Province
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 is 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 Plague.

Fujian Province
In Fuzhou, wives present graveclothes, shoes and socks, rice dumplings and fans to their parents-in-law as a gift. In Jianyang County, May 5 is the day when the 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-color threads and tie the decorations to their hairpins with colorful strings. Little girls tie the decorations to their arms.

Guangdong Province
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 advocate and escort the patrol of the Buddha statue. Moreover, 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.

Hainan Province
During every Dragon Boat Festival, each place 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 calami and argy wormwood in front of their houses.

The custom of drinking realgar wine is popular in the Yangtze River Valley.

The custom of eating millet rice is popular in some parts of northern China, where the language people speak is very similar to Mandarin.

The custom of walking to stay healthy is popular in the Guizhou area.

Taiwan Province

In Taiwan, common people hang calami, argy 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 to sell rice dumplings. In Taiwan, different types of unique rice dumplings are produced. Common people also like to show their creative, self-made rice dumplings. In the Tainan area, people do not eat rice dumplings. Instead, they eat fried glutinous rice balls sprinkled with sesame. This custom has something to do with Zheng Chenggong (a hero of Ming Dynasty 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 during the Dragon Boat Festival on each major river in Taiwan.

Hi, I'm Ruru Zhou
I updated this article on April 11, 2014
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