Your Complete Guide to the Dragon Boat Festival

Last updated on February 27th, 2024 at 06:14 pm

Dragon Boat Festival

As spring turns to summer, people begin to anticipate the dragon boat festival in China. The origins of the holiday date back to ancient times, and today, people observe the event not just throughout China but worldwide.

In celebration of the holiday, our team at Remitly created this guide to the dragon boat festival. Read on to learn about Dragon Boat Festival history and traditions and to find out how you can participate in the fun in a city in the U.S.

What is the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival?

The Dragon Boat Festival is a three-day celebration that takes place every year in China. The annual event is a public holiday, so most businesses close during the festivities. Schools and government offices also shut down during the three days.

Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan also observe the Dragon Boat Festival as a public holiday. However, the event lasts just one day in those locations, with businesses reopening the day after.

When is the Dragon Boat Festival in 2024?

The Dragon Boat Festival begins on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar and lasts for three days. Like many other Asian festivals, it occurs on a different day yearly due to the differences between the Gregorian and lunar calendars. Typically, the event takes place during June, but some years it is a late spring festival, beginning in May.

In 2023, the Dragon Boat Festival begins on June 22 and ends on June 24.

The 2024 celebration in China will be on June 10, 11, and 12.

The History of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

We have yet to determine the exact history of the Dragon Boat Festival, but many theories surround its origins. What is certain is that the event pays tribute to Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE), a scholar who advised the court of Chu during the Warring States period.

The story goes that Qu Yuan opposed a growing alliance between Chua and the state of Qin. His opposition led to his banishment, and Qu Yuan became a prolific poet during his years of seclusion. Years later, when Qin invaded Chu and seized its capital, Qu Yuan fell into despair and drowned himself in the Miluo River.

By the time of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD), rich mythology had sprung up around Qu Yuan, saying that he became a water spirit after his death and had the power to ward off evil spirits.

As early as the 5th or 6th century AD, people began celebrating the life and death of Qu Yuan with an annual holiday that involved dragon boats. The Ancient Chinese believed dragons were protectors who warded off evil and brought good fortune.

Qu Yuan’s role as a water spirit likely led the Ancient Chinese to connect dragon boats to him. The timing of the annual celebration also falls on a day of the lunar calendar once thought particularly unlucky. People may have raced dragon boats and made offerings to Qu Yuan in hopes of gaining favor from two powerful forces on a day they feared would bring them misfortune. There are also theories that military exercises involving dragon boats were held around the same time as early celebrations and eventually became a part of the festivities.

Dragon Boat Festival Traditions

The ways people observe the Dragon Boat Festival vary throughout China. However, there are some traditions and activities that are commonplace. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Dragon boat races

As the name suggests, dragon boat races are a key part of the Dragon Boat Festival. A dragon boat is a long paddle boat, usually crafted from teak wood and elaborately decorated. To help the paddlers move in unison, a person keeps time by beating on a drum.

Locals build and design their own boats in rural areas and engage in friendly competition. Near large cities, teams of rowers train for months hoping to come in first during the races. Sometimes, winning teams receive medals or trophies, and it’s tradition to say that those who finish first will have good luck for the rest of the year.

People who don’t take part in the races watch the action from the shore, cheering on the competitors and enjoying the beauty of the ornate boats.

Dragon Boat Festival food

Sticky rice dumplings

Sticky rice dumplings called zongzi are a popular Dragon Boat Festival food. Inside the dumplings is a filling that usually contains rice, peanuts, and other ingredients. In some parts of China, the dumplings come wrapped in rice paper or bamboo leaves.

People traditionally serve alcoholic beverages during the Dragon Boat Festival. Chinese people often sip a yellow-orange drink called realgar wine, believing it repels evil spirits.

Fragrant herbs

Because of a belief that certain scents repel evil spirits, people sometimes incorporate fragrant herbs like mugwort and calamus into Dragon Boat Festival celebrations.

They may hang sacks filled with them on their doors and/or walls or wear small pouches that contain them. These traditions are common in both rural areas and cities in China.

Egg balancing

A less common activity is the egg balance. In some places, people hand out eggs and try to balance them upright at noon on the first day of the Dragon Festival. It’s said that anyone who succeeds receives a year of good luck.

Dragon Boat Festival celebrations in the U.S.

Dragon Boat Festival

As Chinese people immigrate to other parts of the world, they bring the tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival. Today, Chinese-American communities organize celebrations in many cities and invite the public to join the fun. Here are some places to attend a Dragon Boat Festival in the U.S.

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival

Held in Denver, the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival is one of the largest in the U.S. In 2024, the event will occur at Sloan Lake Park on July 27 and 28.

Boston Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival

Founded in 1979, the Boston Dragon Boat Festival is the oldest annual celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival in the U.S., and hundreds of teams compete in the dragon boat races every year. The event will happen on June 9, 2024, on the Charles River near Weeks Footbridge.

Kansas City International Dragon Boat Festival

The Society for Friendship with China sponsors the Kansas City International Dragon Boat Festival. For 2024, the event will take place at Brush Creek in Country Club Plaza. The date has not been released yet.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York

Held at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York is a large event that usually draws at least 100 dragon boat racing teams. The 2024 dates are August 3 and 4.

San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival

Since the launch of the event in 1996, the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival has grown into a large celebration of Chinese heritage and culture. In addition to dragon boat racing, the event held at various lakes in San Francisco includes music and dance performances and exhibitions of art produced by Chinese artists. The 2024 dates have not been released yet.

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