A Long Row; 2,000 Years of the Dragon Boat Festival

by Joe

China’s fascinating culture is full of appreciation for its ancient history.  One of the more colorful events occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of China’s lunar calendar.  In Western terms, Dragon Boat Festival occurs each year in June.




Historic Roots

Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the life and suicide of China’s first poet, Qu Yuan in 278 BC.  Qu Yuan was very outspoken in his time and some of what he said was not in favor with the royal court.  To silence him, Qu Yuan was accused with false charges and expelled from the kingdom to live in exile.  During those years, he composed poetry to express his anger and sorrow.  Finally, at the age of 61, Qu Yuan tied a stone around his neck and drowned himself in the Miluo River in what is now Hunan province.  The dragon boat festival also commemorates the actions that local villagers took upon realizing what Qu Yuan had done.  Recognizing that he was an honorable man, the villagers took to their boats to search the river for his body.


Festival Customs

With the passing of time, many traditions have been established.

Dragon Boats have been used in China for thousands of years.

Dragon boats – These are paddle boats (like canoes), traditionally built from teak.  They are brightly painted like open-mouthed dragons that have scaly tails behind.  These boats are anywhere between 40 and 100 feet long and paddled by up to 80 rowers.

Perfume Pouches – In the days leading up to the festival, parents prepare wonderfully scented pouches for their children.  Sewn in colorful cloth and hung around the children’s necks or tied to the front of their clothing, these pouches are believed to provide protection from evil.

Zongzi is a traditional favorite and an important part of the annual Dragon Boat Festival.

Zongzi 粽子 ) – These are triangular-shaped, sticky rice dumplings filled with meats, beans and other fillings.  Flavors may vary from region to region across China.

Realgar Wine – This is a wine made from fermented grains and reddish mineral consisting of arsenic sulfide which is crushed to a powder and blended into the wine.  Historically,  the Chinese believed that realgar was an antidote for all poisons, and effective for killing insects and driving away evil spirits.


Dragon Boat Festivals in America

“Melting Pot” America is a country with a rich and diverse cultural mix.  The Chinese have made many important contributions to our growth and development.  25,000 Chinese immigrated in the early 1850’s to participate in the California Gold rush.  Between 1865 and 1868, over 4,000 Chinese immigrants worked alongside other Americans to build the Transcontinental Railroad  These mighty workers built railroad tracks where one would think it was almost impossible – across the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the Interior Plains.  They invested both their  physical strength and their intellect.  One journal of the time contains the following quote – “the Chinese are especially clever in aligning roads and could and are capable of striking a truer line for a longer distance with the unassisted eye than most white men can with the aid of instruments.”

Dragon Boat Race

Dragon Boat Race in Chicago, IL

At the heart of the festival is the race excitement, with nearly 120 dragon boat teams representing local corporations and non-profits as well as competitive teams from across the globe.  This year’s event even includes a team from Hong Kong who are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The Opening Ceremony includes Buddhist monks performing a traditional blessing and eye dotting ceremony to awaken the dragons for a weekend of racing, joined by Oakland’s Mayor Schaaf and the Oakland A’s Stomper. The Opening Ceremony also features lion dancing and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir singing the National Anthem.

Scene from the Pan Asian Festival at the Mall of America; Minneapolis, MN 2018

The festival is also a pan-Asian cultural celebration.  On stage, there will be Chinese acrobats, Taiko drumming, Tahitian dancing, martial arts, magic shows, and other special performances. Roving stilt walkers and Chinese drummers will also be appearing throughout the Festival.



Word 4 Asia is proud of our association with the Chinese people, both in China and in America.  Over 20 years, we have developed a masterful understanding of Chinese culture that includes the most efficient ways to accomplish organization objectives.  If your plans include a more active role in China, we’d be happy to share our professional insight with you!  For more information, contact Gene Wood at gene@word4asia.com

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