Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Jie (‘Start-of the-Fifth-Solar-Month Festival’) or Dumpling Festival or Double Fifth Festival, is celebrated with dragon boat races and rice dumplings. It is one of the four top traditional Chinese festivals, along with the Spring Festival, Tomb-Sweeping Day, and Mid-Autumn Festival.
In addition to China, many other Asian countries also celebrate this festival. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Taiwan, it is known as Bak Chang Festival (‘Dumpling Festival').
In 2022, Dragon Boat Festival falls on June 3 (Friday). China will have 3 days of public holiday from Friday (June 3) to Sunday (June 5).
Quick Facts about Dragon Boat Festival
- Chinese name: 端午节 Duānwǔ Jié /dwann-woo jyeah/ 'start [of the] fifth traditional solar month festival'
- Date: month 5 day 5 of the Chinese lunar calendar
- History: over 2,000 years
- Celebrations: dragon boat racing, eating sticky rice dumplings (zongzi), health-related customs, honoring Qu Yuan or the Dragon God / Water God
- Popular festival food: sticky rice dumplings (zongzi)
- Learn more facts about the Dragon Boat Festival
When Is Dragon Boat Festival Celebrated?
Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, hence it is also called “Double Fifth Festival”.
The date is based on a lunar calendar, therefore the date varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar. Generally, the festival falls anywhere from the end of May to late June in the Gregorian calendar (within half a lunar month of June 11th).
In 2022, Dragon Boat Festival occurs on June 3. See more about why it is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
Why Do People Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival?
The Death of Qu Yuan
There are many legends about the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival. The most popular one is in commemoration of Qu Yuan.
Qu Yuan (340–278 BC) was a patriotic poet and exiled official during the Warring States Period of ancient China. He drowned himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month, when his beloved Chu State fell to the State of Qin. Local people desperately tried to save Qu Yuan or recover his body, to no avail.
In order to commemorate Qu Yuan, every fifth day of the fifth lunar month people beat drums and paddle out in boats on the river as they once did to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body.
Learn more about the History and Legends of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The Unlucky Fifth Month
It is widely believed that the Dragon Boat Festival actually came before the death of Qu Yuan. Another possible explanation for the origins of the festival relates to the calendar placement of the occasion.
Since ancient times, the fifth lunar month has been considered an unlucky month, and is known to some as the ‘month of poison’, because the dreaded ‘five poisonous creatures’ (五毒wǔdú) begin to emerge in this month. Traditionally, the five creatures refer to centipedes, scorpions, snakes, toads, and spiders. Poisonous creatures, brought out by the warming weather and seasonal fluctuations, as well as natural disasters and illnesses are common in the fifth month.
The fifth day of the fifth month (“double five”) was believed to be a very inauspicious day. On this day, people would put wormwood and calamus on the door and wore fragrant mugwort pouches (香包). Since the shape of calamus leaves is like that of a sword and due to the strong smell of the herb, it is believed that calamus can keep pests as well as evil spirits away. So, Dragon Boat Festival is also called "Calamus Festival" (菖蒲节 Chāngpú Jié).
How Do People Celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival?
Chinese people practice various customs thought to dispel disease, and invoke good health.
Some of the most traditional customs include dragon boat racing, eating sticky rice dumplings (zongzi), hanging Chinese mugwort and calamus, drinking realgar wine, and wearing perfume pouches.
Now many of the customs are disappearing or no longer observed. You are more likely to find them practiced in rural areas.
1. Eating Sticky Rice Dumplings
Zongzi (粽子zòngzi /dzong-dzuh/) are the most traditional Dragon Boat Festival food. Related to Qu Yuan commemoration, the legend says that lumps of rice (not unlike zongzi) were thrown into the river to stop fish eating his drowned body.
They are a kind of sticky rice dumpling made of glutinous rice filled with meats, beans, and other fillings.
Zongzi are wrapped in triangle or rectangle shapes within bamboo or reed leaves and tied with soaked stalks or colorful silky cords. The flavors of zongzi are usually different from one region to another across China. Read more on Zongzi.
2. Participating In or Attending Dragon Boat Races
Dragon boat racing is the most important activity of the Dragon Boat Festival. It is said to originate from the legend of people paddling out on boats to seek the body of patriotic poet Qu Yuan (343–278 BC), who drowned himself in a River.
There is another explanation. It is believed that dragon boat racing can be traced back to over 2,000 years ago, when it was a way to worship the Dragon God or Water God.
The wooden boats are shaped and decorated in the form of a Chinese dragon. The boats’ size varies by region and usually need 30–60 people to paddle them. During the races, dragon boat teams paddle harmoniously and hurriedly, accompanied by the sound of beating drums. It is said that the winning team will have good luck and a happy life in the following year.
The most famous dragon boat races can be found in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou. Read more on Dragon Boat Racing.
3. Hanging Chinese Mugwort and Calamus
The Dragon Boat Festival is held at the start of summer when diseases are more prevalent. Mugwort leaves are used medicinally in China to combat such diseases. Their fragrance deters flies and mosquitoes. Calamus is an aquatic plant that has similar effects.
On the fifth day of the fifth month, people usually clean their houses, courtyards, and hang mugwort and calamus on doors lintels to discourage diseases. It is also said hanging mugwort and calamus can bring good luck to the family.
4. Drinking Realgar Wine
There is an old saying: 'Drinking realgar wine drives diseases and evils away!' Realgar wine is a Chinese alcoholic drink consisting of fermented cereals and powdered realgar (ruby-like arsenic sulphide).
In ancient times, people believed that realgar was an antidote for all poisons, and effective for killing insects and driving away evil spirits. So, everyone would drink some realgar wine during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Learn more about Dragon Boat Festival Food.
5. Wearing Perfume Pouches
Before Dragon Boat Festival arrives, parents usually prepare perfume pouches for their children. They sew little bags with colorful silk cloth, fill the bags with perfumes or herbal medicines, and then string them shut with silk threads.
During Dragon Boat Festival perfume pouches are hung around kids' necks or tied to the front of a garment as an ornament. The perfume pouches are said to protect them from evil. Learn more on Dragon Boat Festival Customs.
Dragon Boat Festival Greetings
Did you know that “Happy Dragon Boat Festival” (端午快乐 Duānwǔjié kuàilè) might not be an appropriate greeting, even though it sounds quite natural? (This is because of the solemn commemorative and evil-suppressing aspects of the day.)
“Safe and Healthy Dragon Boat Festival” (端午安康 Duānwǔjié ānkāng) is getting more popular as a greeting. Click to know how to greet people during Dragon Boat Festival, and why.