How to Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival - 9 Activities

Written by Apple Updated May. 19, 2023

The Dragon Boat Festival has a long history of more than 2,000 years. During this long period of time, various traditions have developed. What are the most popular Dragon Boat Festival traditions in China? 

1. Eating Zongzi

Dragon Boat festival Zongzi

Zongzi is a traditional food eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. They are made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves.

The practice of eating Zongzi at the Dragon Boat Festival can be dated back to the Han Dynasty. It became officially a Dragon Boat Festival food in the Jin Dynasty (266 - 420 AD).

Depending on the region, Zongzi can come in various shapes and flavors. In northern China, Zongzi tends to be sweet, while in southern China, Zongzi has a savory taste. They are usually cooked by steaming or boiling. 

Why do people eat Zongzi at the Dragon Boat Festival? It is said that people eat Zongzi during this festival to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a famous poet who lived 2300 years in the Warring States Period and was known for his patriotism. After Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river, people threw glutinous rice balls into the river so that the fish wouldn't harm Qu Yuan's body. That's the origin of eating Zongzi at the Dragon Boat Festival. Read more on Zongzi - Food of Dragon Boat Festival

2. Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon boat race

Dragon boat racing has been a tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival for more than 2,000 years. It is also one of the most important folk water sports activities of the festival in China. 

A dragon boat is a long and narrow human-powered paddled boat with a decorative Chinese dragon head and tail. These boats are made of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and fiberglass. People paddle to compete in pairs in boats. Each boat has a drummer using a rhythmic drum to beat to keep the paddlers in unison. 

Dragon boat racing emerged in the Warring States Period (402 - 221 BC). It was initially a ceremonial and religious activity designed to appease the rain god and celebrate the summer rice planting. The activity and celebration is an important part of the ancient Chinese agricultural society.

There is also a legend that the boat racing during the Dragon Boat Festival is to commemorate Qu Yuan. After Qu Yuan committed suicide at Mi Luo River, people row out on boats to find his body. That is the origin of boat racing at this festival.

3. Wearing Fragrant Bags

fragrant bags Jinling old street

It is a custom for people to wear colorful fragrant bags at the Dragon Boat Festival. These bags feature ingenious designs with beautiful patterns and are filled with Chinese spices and herbs. 

People wear colorful fragrant bags at Dragon Boat Festival to ward off disease and promote good health. Because during the time of Dragon Boat Festival, mosquitoes are very rampant and easy to spread infectious diseases. In ancient times, wearing a bag with spices and herbs played a role in disinfection and driving away mosquitoes.

4. Hanging Calamus and Mugwort on Doors

herb plants sold at market during the Dragon Boat Festival

The tradition of hanging calamus and mugwort on doors and windows at the Dragon Boat Festival can date back to the Qing Dynasty (1616 - 1912). It is practiced in many places in China. 

Why do people hang calamus and mugwort on doors at the Dragon Boat Festival? This is because when the festival is coming, insects are active during this time and people are prone to catch infectious diseases. It is believed that calamus and mugwort, which have a pleasant fragrance and are used medicinally in China, can help avoid diseases and bad luck. 

5. Drinking Realgar Wine


Drinking realgar wine at the Dragon Boat Festival is an old tradition. Realgar is traditional Chinese medicine. People soak realgar in the wine and drink it at the festival. Children too young to drink alcohol would have a realgar slurry drawn on their forehead or chest.

In Chinese ancient times, the fifth lunar month is marked as a "poisonous" month. It is believed that the realgar wine can drive the "five poisons" (snakes, scorpions, centipedes, lizards, and toads) away. People believed that drinking realgar wine at the Dragon Boat festival can also drive away evil spirits and keep good health.

6. Enjoying a Herbal Bath

An herbal bath on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival is believed to help treat skin diseases and expel evil spirits.

Chinese people believe the medicinal properties of plants are particularly potent during the fifth month of the lunar year during the festival. In Southern China, locals collect and boil various medicinal plants for bathing, such as mugwort, cattail, hibiscus, and magnolia.

7. Wearing Five-Color Silk Threads

In Chinese culture, the combination of five colors - green, red, white, black, and yellow - is considered auspicious. Wearing five-colored silk threads around the wrist was once a popular custom during the Dragon Boat Festival.

Traditionally, these threads are twisted into a colorful rope. On the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, children wear these five-colored silk threads on their wrists and ankles to ward off evil spirits. They keep the threads on from the Dragon Boat Festival day until the Qixi Festival when they remove and burn them along with Joss paper offerings.

Another custom is to cut the colorful threads on the first rainy day after the Dragon Boat Festival and throw them into the rain, symbolizing the washing away of plague and disease by the water. This practice is believed to protect against evil and misfortune and bring good luck for the year ahead.

8. Painting Children's Foreheads with Realgar

During the Dragon Boat Festival, there is a custom of using realgar to paint children's foreheads to ward off evil. People use realgar-infused wine to draw a shape to resemble a tiger's forehead stripes on a child's forehead.

As the tiger is considered the king of the beasts, it is believed to have the power to suppress evil spirits. In addition to painting the forehead, nose, and ears, realgar can also be applied to other parts of the body for the same purpose.

9.  Avoiding the Five Poisons

Ancient Chinese believed the Dragon Boat Festival was a day of poison and evil. It is believed that the month of May is when the five poisons (scorpion, snake, centipede, gecko, and toad) become active, which can cause harm. 

So it is important to ward off the five poisons. Typically, people print images of the five poisonous creatures on red paper and post it around the house. Then, they use five needles to pierce these images, symbolizing that the poisonous creatures have been killed and can no longer cause harm. People also embroider the five poisons on clothing and adorn cakes with images of the five poisonous creatures, all with the intention of driving away evil.

In fact, this is due to the hot and dry summer weather the season, making people more easy to get sick. 

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