As the spring season draws to a close and as the dog days of summer approach, the Taiwanese get ready for the Dragon Boat Festival—one of the most popular annual festivals celebrated across East Asia from China to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Okinawa.

The Korean Dano Festival, Vietnam’s Tết Đoan Ngọ and Japan’s Kodomo no Hi all have historical links to the Dragon Boat Festival.

Photo: A Taiwanese dragon boat team in Taipei
A Taiwanese dragon boat team in Taipei

The Dragon Boat Festival (Taiwanese: Toan-ngó͘-chiat; Mandarin: Duānwǔjié), celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is also known as the Double Fifth Festival for that very reason. It is a festival that children and families often look forward to due to the many games and activities associated with the celebration.

Different regions and cultures have different ways of celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival. Besides dragon boat races, the Taiwanese also celebrate the festival with other fun activities such as making zòngzi dumplings, making scented sachets, hanging up mugworts and partaking in egg balancing competitions.

Before delving further into the activities themselves, let’s take a look at the legend that gave rise to the Dragon Boat Festival.

Photo: Qū Yuán on a dragon Boat in Singapore
Statue of the second-century BCE statesman and poet Qū Yuán on a Dragon Boat in Singapore
Vmenkov. [CC BY-SA]

The festival’s roots date back to a time known as the Warring States (Zhànguó) period—a 254-year period from 475 to 221 BCE that preceded the creation of the first unified imperial Chinese state.

Right around the same time the Romans were trying to unify Italy, many independent kingdoms existed in the Far Eastern lands that were eventually conquered by China’s First Emperor.

One of these kingdoms was known as Chǔ, a southern frontier state in what is today the south-central part of China. The Dragon Boat Festival’s origins lie in the life (and death) of a Chu poet and statesman living at the end of the Warring States period.

His name was Qū Yuán and he is known for his contributions to the ancient poetic compilation known as The Songs of the South (楚辭). Today, however, he is mostly remembered for the manner of his death and the festival that arose in his honour.

In 278 BCE, the First Emperor’s kingdom—the Kingdom of Qín (pronounced Chin)—was well on its way to creating “China” (Can you guess how China got its name?).

The Qin dealt a severe defeat on the Kingdom of Chu and the Chu capital of Ying was overrun by invading Qin forces. By the close of the century, the Qin will have subdued all the warring states and establish the first Chinese Empire.

It is said that the famed Chu poet-statesman, Qū Yuán, on learning of the devastation suffered by his home country at the hands of the Qin, was overcome by grief. He was said to have waded into the Miluo River where he drowned himself in an apparent ritual suicide to express his anguish.

Photo: Rice dumplings prepared for the Dragon Boat Festival
Steamed rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves

Local villagers rushed out on their boats for a search-and-rescue mission. But, alas, their efforts were unsuccessful.

In the end, all the villagers could do was to toss rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves, into the river as offering both to the spirit of Qū Yuán as well as feed to prevent the river fish from devouring Qū Yuán’s body. The rice tossed into the river is believed to be the origin of the custom of making zòngzi dumplings during the Dragon Boat Festival.

It is said that, in memory of the much-revered poet and statesman, the villagers held annual dragon boat races on the anniversary of his death to celebrate his achievements in life. This custom subsequently spread to many other places and has survived to the present.

Photo: Dragon Boat racing in the West
Dragon boat racing has spread to the West

Today, dragon boat racing is a worldwide phenomenon. The first international dragon boat race was held in Hong Kong in 1976 and the International Dragon Boat Federation was established in 1991. Dragon boat racing tournaments and championships are held annually all over the world and the activity continues its rapid growth in worldwide popularity.

Taiwanese dragon boat races arose from a hybrid of Chinese folk culture and pre-existing aboriginal boat-racing traditions. Taiwan’s dragon boats are constructed in the “sampan” style (Taiwanese: sam-pán; Mandarin: shānbǎn), which refers to small traditional flat-bottom vessels.

The vessels are decorated with intricate patterns inspired by the mythical East Asian dragon; but beyond that basic principle, each region’s dragon boat design is unique. Taiwanese vessels are colourful and their bodies are covered in dragon-scale motifs. The bows typically feature large sculpted or moulded dragon heads and curled tails at the stern. Each dragon boat is also equipped with a large taiko-style drum or a hand-held gong. The designated drummer is tasked with providing a high-paced and rhythmic beat to effectively coordinate the oarsmen’s rowing efforts.

Photo: Okinawan dragon boats
Okinawan dragon boats ハーリー応援団 [CC BY-SA]

At the start of the races, the pupils in the eyes of the dragon boats are left blank. A ceremony called “Awakening the Dragon” is performed in which the pupils are literally “dotted” to awaken and invoke the dragon’s spirit. Dark red ink mixed with water from the river upon which the race is held is used to perform this ritual. A small amount of earth from the riverbank is also mixed into the ink. Once the ceremony is performed, the race is ready to begin.

According to Taiwanese practices, as each dragon boat approached the finish line, a designated team member is charged with plucking free a flag set afloat on a buoy. The first team to successfully retrieve their flag is declared the winning team.

Besides dragon boat racing, a number of other activities are also associated with the Taiwanese Dragon Boat Festival.

The festival marks the coming of the summer months in Taiwan. The island’s subtropical climate means that, with the summer, comes the most active season for insect life. To ward off these bugs, the Taiwanese traditionally make and carry scented sachets packed with herbs and plants that deter insects. The custom of hanging up the mugwort plant near the entrance to one’s residence arose from the same practice.

Over time, people began to see these practices as possessing a supernatural element as well and the purpose of “warding off malignant spirits” is given as an alternative explanation for the scented sachets and mugworts.

In Taiwan, the activity of egg balancing is another custom associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. While in China, the activity is associated with the spring equinox in March, egg balancing in Taiwan is done during the Dragon Boat Festival instead, which marks the beginning of summer.

The excitement of dragon boat racing is the highlight of the two-thousand-year-old Dragon Boat Festival, which has proven itself to be popular still in the 21st century. Other games and activities also complement the celebrations and make it one of the most popular of traditional folk festivals celebrated in Taiwan. All Taiwanese children and their families look forward to celebrating this summertime holiday each year!

Photo: New Zealand dragon boat racing team
A dragon boat team from New Zealand
Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.