Dragon Boat Festival guide: Everything you need to know

Gorging yourself on glutinous rice balls called zong zi, hanging pungent wormwood or calamus plants on your front door, and glugging down hsiung huang wine – they’re all part of the incredible cultural event that is the Dragon Boat Festival.

But, how did the festival originate? When does it take place? And if you can’t get to China to see it firsthand, where can you celebrate? Let’s dive into everything you need to know about the Dragon Boat Festival, and more. 

What is the Dragon Boat festival? 

The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu or Tue Ng, is an annual festival that’s celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. 

Now mainly associated with the sport of dragon boat racing around the world, the legend goes that Chu Yuan, an honorable statesman and acclaimed Chinese poet, wrote a poem which angered the King, who ordered Yuan into exile. 

©Gerry Giroux/Flickr

Instead, in defiance, he threw himself into the Mi-Lo River, where – as the story goes – the locals tried to rescue him, throwing dumplings into the river to save him from the fish, and beating drums to scare creatures away. It’s said that the festival aims to symbolize these rescue attempts, as a remembrance of China’s most notable poet.   

When is the Dragon Boat festival?

Each year, the festival is slated to take place on the ‘Double Fifth’, essentially the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. Because this calendar is out of sync with the more well-known Gregorian calendar, the date shifts each year. 

For 2021, the main festival is scheduled for 14 June. 

That said, outside of China, other countries have been known to celebrate the festival at other times of the year, anytime between July to October based on their weather conditions. 

What can you expect at the Dragon Boat festival? 

Celebrated in different ways across the globe, there are a few ‘common’ elements to the Dragon Boat Festival, all of them hailing from its origins in ancient China. 

Dragon Boat Racing

First up, there is generally always dragon boat racing, as the most popular (and exciting) part of the festival. A dragon boat is a gigantic teak canoe, which usually boasts a dragon’s head carved into its bow, and a tail at the stern. Stretching up to 100 feet long and seating between 20 and 80 paddlers, these large boats are a central feature of the festival, and have been a stalwart of its international expansion.

©Joanne Wan/Flickr

The races are of course symbolic of the attempt to rescue Chu Yuan’s body, and are packed with unusual customs, like the pre-race ceremony to paint eyes on the vessel, to ‘bring it to life’. The races attract people from all walks of life, and are a really rambunctious affair, with large crowds and a contest punctuated by the beating of a drum, to keep time with the oar strokes.    

Zong zi

Next up on the festival line-up is the eating of zong zi. These rice balls are wrapped in corn leaves and usually sport a number of different fillings, depending on the region.

Like sweeter options with dates, fruit or sweet potato in northern China, savory bites including meat, egg or beans in southern China, or even chestnuts or squid in nearby Taiwan. 

Hanging Calamus or Wormwood 

In an attempt to dispel evil and bring health to the participants and the locals, it’s a custom of the Dragon Boat Festival to hang branches of calamus and wormwood on your doors and windows during the festival. These are meant to also repel flies, insects and moths, which are more prominent around that time of year. 

Some areas take this a bit further though, like in Jiezhou where adults actually don wormwood leaves themselves, to rid themselves of disease. Or in Taiwan where participants add a print of Chinese immortal, Zhong Kui, to protect their homes from harm. 

Where can you celebrate the festival? 

While the festival is firmly rooted in China, and is celebrated across that nation, it’s also gripped countries further afield. And, if you’re keen to experience it yourself, you’re spoilt for choice. 

There are currently nearly 70 countries that are members of the International Dragon Boat Federation, all of which mark the event. Actually, it’s so popular that UNESCO has dubbed it an event of ‘intangible cultural heritage’! 

Asia 

Of course, the best place to take part in the festival is in China itself, with many regional influences. In Shi Cheng you’ll see children flying kites to ensure bad spirits ‘fly away’ while in Jiangxi province, for example, they bathe in waters infused with over a hundred herbs, to prevent diseases. 

However, if you can’t make it to China, there are many options in Asia. Like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, which all have large Chinese populations but also a flourishing festival calendar, or further afield in Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam, albeit sometimes under slightly different names. 

The Americas

Outside of Asia, there’s no doubt that dragon boat racing and, by extension, the festival has gotten the most traction in the US. With events all the way from California on the west coast to a glut of events almost year-round in sunny Florida on the east coast, you should be able to find an event close to you. 

©Shelly Prevost/Flickr

Northern neighbor, Canada, has also been known to host a few rousing festivals, although you’ll find less on offer in South America. Surprisingly, one of the most notable countries to see the festival in the Americas is the small nation of Trinidad and Tobago, where festivalgoers flock every October. 

Europe

Not to be left off the map of festivities, there are enclaves of enthusiasts in Europe, although very much focused on the racing aspect, and not taking part in the other customs. 

The brightest light can be found in the UK, zoned in on London, where an annual waterside celebration is held at the Docklands complete with the races, live entertainment and a huge array of Chinese-inspired food stalls, all geared towards family friendly fun. 

Oceania

With many dragon boating fans, you’ll find many festival events taking place across Oceania, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

©Marc Dalmulder/Flickr

You’ll find avid rowers in Wellington, in Australia’s state of Victoria or even in the smaller town of Freemantle, in Western Australia. 

Africa

Last, but definitely not least, on the agenda is Africa which, like South America, is sparsely sprinkled with dragon boat events to frequent. The most notable ones are held in South Africa, in the coastal cities of Cape Town and Durban, although 2021 will see the first ever dragon boat festival marked in Egypt, with wannabe racers taking to the mighty Nile river, near Giza.

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