Dragon Boat Festival traditions

Discover Duanwujie customs like a local with our guide to traditions

Zongzi image from Shutterstock
The Dragon Boat Festival or Duanwujie, happens on the fifth day of the fifth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This year it falls on Monday 2 June with a three-day holiday starting from Saturday 31 May. To help you make the most of this holiday, Time Out has together everything you need to know about it including the tale behind the festival, traditions and activities.


The story behind Dragon Boat Festival


Image caijing.com.cn

Accorded to Sima Qian’s Shiji – a comprehensive history of ancient China covering 2,500 years, the festival commemorates the death of the ancient poet and high ranking minister in the state of Chu, Qu Yuan, who was banished for opposing the king’s alliance with the more powerful Qin state. 20 years later, seeing the Chu capital occupied by the Qin state and his people suffer, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in Miluo River, which runs through what is now Hunan and Jiangxi. Locals raced out in their boats to retrieve him while dropping balls of sticky rice into the river to keep the fish from eating his body. 


While this is the most-commonly told story, some scholars suggest that Duanwujie existed long before the tale. People offered zongzi (rice wrapped in leaves; see what to eat, below) to the dragon king and raced in dragon boats to show reverence to the dragon and the yang energy associated with it.   


What to do

The festival is known for dragon boat races, which symbolise the efforts to retrieve Qu's body. A typical dragon boat is 50-100 feet in length, with a beam about 5.5 feet, accommodating two paddlers seated side by side, with a wooden dragon head attached at the bow and a tail at the stern. Drummers, gong beaters and cymbal players sit in the boat and set the pace for the paddlers with noises of excitement for the participants and spectators. 

Take part Watch Dragon Boat Races in Shanghai 2014 or try Dragon Boat racing yourself with the Shanghai-based Shanglong Dragonboat Club


What to eat

Eating zongzi is one of the customs of Dragon Boat Festival. The pyramid-shaped sticky rice parcels wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves are tasty enough without any fillings, but you can add sweetened bean paste, fresh meat or egg yolk as well if you’d like. 

Take part While you can buy them at most local wet markets, one of our favourites is the Shanghai-style classic pork and egg yolk version at the Fuxing Lu, Xiangyang Lu wet market from around 5-7RMB. 

Chinese families also make zongzi by themselves. When making it, soak the rice, wash the reed or bamboo leaves and wrap the rice with them. See the video below for instructions to make them yourself, or learn to make your own with Cook in Shanghai's Duanwujie cultural tour.