Every year, China celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Chinese calendar. For 2020, that’s June 25th – today!

Originally a cultural holiday, it was accorded public holiday status in 2008.

The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. A cadet member of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.


As the name would suggest, dragon boat races are a common commemorative activity. Legend has it that Qu Yuan’s supporters raced out in dragon boats to search for his body.

A dragon boat team typically consists of 20 paddlers (in ten rows of two), a drummer at the front, and a sweep to steer the boat from the rear. As you can imagine, getting in and out of the boat is a time consuming affair. The front paddlers keep the pace set by the drummer and everyone else paddles in sync with the person in front of them. At least, they’re supposed to!

I first encountered dragon boat racing while attending University of Toronto. You would think that the most jacked guys in the gym would be members of the football team, but they weren’t. They were the New College dragon boat team. (Also, our football team sucked.) Although I never made the competitive roster, I was in one of the best shapes of my life while training with them.

I would later be “recruited” to the ING Direct Canada dragon boat team during my third internship. We were terrible, but it was a good excuse to be on the water with coworkers during the summer. I even got a free trip to Montreal out of it.

Even if you’re not physically inclined, dragon boat teams need a lot of help in the form of riverside encouragement. Grab a zongzi1Traditional Chinese rice dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves and cheer them on.

Photos by Joshua J. Cotten and Mae Mu