There are many versions of the story about the festival’s traditional origins, food and customs. We’ll share three short stories with you, just in time for the holiday weekend!

The fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar hosts one of the most significant festivals in China – the Dragon Boat Festival or Duān Wǔ Jié (端午节). This year it lands on Monday, June 2nd, though it often falls closer to the summer solstice (June 20/21) when our planet’s northern hemisphere reaches its maximum tilt towards the sun and the dragon’s masculine energy reaches its apex.

Here are three “elevator” versions of the Dragon Boat holiday’s mythic origins that would even put a smile on Joseph Campbell’s face:

Version #1 – Ancient

China Simplified: Dragon Boat Festival #1

Once upon a time, more than 4000 years ago…
People from the ancient Wu & Yue Tribes worshipped the dragon as their totem animal. Rice wraps (zòngzi) were tossed into water to feed the dragon and keep him appeased. Boats were decorated and raced on the water to keep the dragon entertained. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Version #2 – Pre-modern

China Simplified: Dragon Boat Festival #2

Once upon a time, more than 2000 years ago…
Qu Yuan, legendary poet and minister from the Chu Kingdom, during the Warring States period, drowned himself in a river to pledge loyalty to Chu during the takeover by the Qin. Boats with his supporters rushed to save him and rice wraps were tossed into water to prevent fish from nibbling on his body. They also dumped wine into the water to inebriate nearby dragons and other aquatic beasts.

Version #3 – Modern

China Simplified: Dragon Boat Festival #3

Once upon a time, not very long ago…
Foodies realized that rice wraps were delightful culinary treats to the palate. Outdoor enthusiasts encouraged boat racing for its speed and excitement, which naturally attracted partiers sipping grain wine with family and friends. Nobody drown (thankfully) and everyone decided those were reasons enough to celebrate and enjoy the longest day of the year.

Here’s what has kept the festival alive and interesting through thousands of years:

Rice Wraps 
The recipe has evolved over 4000 years, from its original bamboo stem stuffed with rice. Now it’s more of a rice pyramid wrapped in reed or indicalamus leaves then stuffed whatever tastes good, e.g. pork, red beans, mushrooms, salted eggs – you name it. Instead of tossing it into the water to feed fish or dragons, people steam it, peel the leaves and take a big bite.

Dragon Boat Races 
Boat Length: 10-30 meters
Boat Crew: 20-30 people
Race Length: 200-2000 meters, 500 meters most common
Crew Roles:

  •  One drummer at the head side of the boat to synchronize strokes of all paddlers with drum beats.
  •  One Steersman steers the boat at the tail end of the boat.
  • The rest are paddlers working in pairs to power the race.

Mugwort Leaves 
Mugwort leaves and calamus are burnt and hung at the doors to dispel bugs and evil spirits. Their aroma is quite strong and works as natural repellent. They’re found at local wet markets. The leaf shape looks like a sword to scare away evil spirits.

So when the 5th month holiday arrives, you might take a moment to remember Qu Yuan and then enjoy all the Dragon Boat festival has to offer.

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Upcoming Chinese Festivals and Other Holidays.