Blog: The origins of China’s Dragon Boat Festival

Blog: The origins of China’s Dragon Boat Festival


The Chinese lunar calendar is filled with festivals all year round, but among their most exciting is undoubtedly the Dragon Boat Festival. All around the world, teams will pit themselves against one another in heated dragon boat races, and children and adults alike gobble up delicious rice dumplings.

The court minister

There are many stories surrounding the origins of the festival. However, the most well-known one is about a minister during the Zhou dynasty, when ancient China was split into seven states that waged war on one another.

The minister’s name was Qu Yuan, whose upright, earnest and wise counsel to the emperor of the Chu state made him an enemy of many other ministers who wanted money and power for themselves.

Qu Yuan, minister and poet in ancient China. The origin of China's Dragon Boat Festival.

A portrait of Qu Yuan, painted by Chen Hongshou in the Ming dynasty.


Through various methods of manipulation, the other ministers turned the Chu emperor against Qu Yuan, who was exiled and stripped of his status at the emperor’s court.

His poetry, and death

During this period, Qu Yuan devoted his time to poetry, and came to be known as one of the most famous poets in China, even to the present day. His work showed his great love for his country, and also expressed how worried he was with the state of affairs during the Warring States Period he lived in.

Many years passed, and at last the capital city of Chu fell to the conquering Qin state. When Qu Yuan heard of this news, his already-spiraling despair at his beloved country’s situation peaked and he drowned himself in a river. The communities he had been a part of in his exile, who admired him greatly, were shocked by this news.

2015 Chinese dragon boat race in London

The legend says that the people hopped onto their boats and smacked the water loudly with their paddles while banging on drums in order to scare the fish away from the spot where Qu Yuan had submerged. This is assumed to be the precursor to dragon boat racing.

They threw rice dumplings into the river, hoping to distract the fish so that they wouldn’t try to eat Qu Yuan’s body. This was presumably the origin of the meat-, bean-, or mushroom-filled rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves that the Chinese eat during the festival today.


Though the factual accuracy of the festival’s origins are murky at best, the fact remains that the event is still widely-celebrated and is an important time for family.

If you live in the UK, come and join IPH Insurance at the London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at the London Regatta Centre on Sunday 26 June! There will be a dragon boat racing, a food festival, music, martial arts and live entertainment throughout the day.

To find out more, please see our Facebook event.


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