Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie), is also known as Duan Yang, which means “Upright Sun” or “Double Fifth”. Falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month around the summer solstice, the festival is also commonly referred to as the Fifth Month Festival amongst the Chinese. Its origins can be traced to southern China, and festivities include boat races and eating rice dumplings. The festival had evolved from the practice of revering the river dragon, to the commemoration of Qu Yuan, a third-century poet and political figure of the state of Chu in ancient China.1

Legends and myths
River dragon

The dragon was initially viewed as the benevolent spirit of the waters. It exemplified the masculine principle or yang in the Chinese ideology of harmony.2 Among common folk, it was believed that the river dragon controlled the rain and was thus worshipped during the summer solstice. Requests would be made for a balanced rainfall – sufficient to ensure a good harvest, without over-abundance that would cause destructive flooding.3

The early Chinese dragon had the head of a horse, the body of a snake, wings of a bird, and four or five legs. There would be five claws on each foot if it were an imperial dragon; otherwise there would only be four claws.4 Chinese mythology counts at least five sea-dragon kings as part of the Chinese pantheon. These divine immortals were later adopted by Chinese emperors as the imperial emblem, and thus the dragon became a symbol of power, wealth and prosperity.5

Qu Yuan
Primitive worship of the river dragon was often practised during the summer solstice. The Dragon Boat Festival was associated with Qu Yuan’s story only in the second century. Qu Yuan was a councillor and patriotic minister who lived in the third century BCE in the state of Chu. In the midst of turmoil during this period of the Warring States, Qu Yuan had warned his king, Lord Huai, of the threat that the northern state of Qin posed to the southern Chu. However, political intrigue led Lord Huai to banish Qu Yuan instead. The ministry was left in the hands of corrupt statesmen and Qu Yuan helplessly watched his motherland decline. Depressed, he penned beautiful, patriotic poetry such as Li Sao (an allegorical poem stating his political aspirations) and Jiu Ge (or “Nine Songs”, adapted from the folksong style), which gained Qu Yuan great renown.6

In 278 BCE, General Bai Qi led the Qin armies to occupy Ying (the capital of Chu), and destroyed the imperial palace. Several months later, on the fifth day of the fifth moon in 279 BCE, Qu Yuan, driven to despair, threw himself into the Mi Luo River.7

Hereupon the legend varies. Some suggest that fishermen at the scene attempted to save their minister. Having failed, they sought to appease his spirit by throwing rice stuffed in bamboo stems into the river to prevent the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body.8 Others say that the rice offerings were snatched by a river dragon and the rice had to be bundled in chinaberry leaves instead and tied with five different coloured silk threads in order to be effective. The triangular rice dumplings, or zong zi, thus became entwined with the festivities.9 Another version tells of farmers rowing out in dragon boats in their attempt to save Qu Yuan. Hence, dragon boat racing10 has been held annually on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, in honour of the memory of Qu Yuan.

Dragon boat races
During the spring and autumn seasons, the fishermen of Wu (Jiangsu Province) and Yue (Zhejiang Province) used dragon-shaped boats to appease the river dragons. Dragon boat races are believed to have started between 770 and 476 BCE. In the state of Yue, King Gou Jian regularly trained his navy using boat races. It was during the Han Dynasty that dragon boat racing became a sport.11 The boats were long and narrow, with prows painted like a dragon’s head. Noisy gongs and drums set the pace for the rowers. Flags would flap in the air while spectators cheered boats, gaily decked in lanterns, towards the finishing line.12


Suchitthra Vasu

1. Marie-Luise Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 54, 55. (Call no. RSING 394.2 LAT-[CUS])
2. Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, Myths and Legends of China (Singapore: G. Brash, 1984), 208. (Call no. RSING 398.20951 WER)
3. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 55; Tan Huey Peng, Fun with Chinese Festivals (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1991), 58. (Call no. JRSING 394.26951 TAN)
4. Werner, Myths and Legends of China, 208.
5. Werner, Myths and Legends of China, 210.
6. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 55–58.
7. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 58; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1989), 55.
8. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 59; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Ffestivals in Singapore, 53.
9. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 59.
10. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Ffestivals in Singapore, 53.
11. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 58, 60.
12. Latsch, Traditional Chinese Festivals, 59; Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 59.

The information in this article is valid as at 15 July2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Dragon boat festival
Ethnic festivals