China Dragon Boat Festival: The Story of Qu Yuan and the Origin of Zongzi


In the vast constellation of ancient Chinese culture, four traditional festivals stand out prominently: the Spring Festival, the Qingming Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Today, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, we celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, which is also a public holiday in China. Although the origins of this unique festival are varied, the most widespread legend attributes it to the commemoration of Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan is considered one of the earliest and greatest poets in Chinese history and the founder of the Chu Ci (Songs of Chu). According to myth, on this day, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River in despair. When the local people learned of his fate, they paddled their dragon boats out to search for him, but he was never found. To prevent fish from consuming his body, they threw rice dumplings into the river, which eventually evolved into the tradition of eating zongzi. Today, almost every Chinese person eats zongzi on this day, symbolizing the rituals of ancestor worship and prayers for blessings and protection. So, the story of China Dragon Boat Festival begins.

Part I: The Name of ‘屈原’ (Qu Yuan) and the Story of China’s Dragon Boat Festival

Why is he called ‘屈原’ (Qu Yuan)? This question is actually a bit complex. Let me explain the reasons.

First, we need to understand four special terms in ancient Chinese: ‘姓’ (Pinyin: xìng) (English: Family name), ‘氏’ (Pinyin: shì) (English: Clan name), ‘名’ (Pinyin: míng) (English: Given name), and ‘字’ (Pinyin: zì) (English: Courtesy name).

Over 2300 years ago, the poet ‘屈原’ (Pinyin: Qu Yuan) appeared during the Warring States period. To be precise, ‘屈’ (Pinyin: Qu) was his clan name; his given name was ‘平’ (Pinyin: Ping) and his courtesy name was ‘原’ (Pinyin: Yuan). However, his family name was actually ‘芈’ (Pinyin: Mǐ), not ‘屈’ (Pinyin: Qu). According to oracle bone script, the character ‘芈’ is pronounced Mǐ, and it means the bleating sound of a sheep. ‘芈’ (Pinyin: Mǐ) is also a very ancient family name, being the ancestral name of the aristocrats of the Chu state during the Zhou dynasty. Thus, “Qu Yuan” emerged with the family name ‘芈’ (Pinyin: mǐ), the clan name ‘屈’ (Pinyin: Qu), the given name ‘平’ (Pinyin: Ping), and the courtesy name ‘原’ (Pinyin: Yuan). The reason he is called ‘屈原’ (Pinyin: Qu Yuan) is because the character ‘屈’ (Pinyin: Qu) came from his matrilineal clan name ‘芈’ (Pinyin: Mǐ).

Why, then, is ‘屈原’ (Qu Yuan) not called ‘芈原’ (Mǐ Yuan) even though his family name is ‘芈’ (Mǐ)? This has to do with the ancient Chinese culture of ‘Family name’ and ‘Clan names’. Originally, ‘Family name’ and ‘Clan names’ were separate. The history of ‘Family name’ dates back to matrilineal societies, where children only knew their mothers and not their fathers. Therefore, children used their mother’s surname to represent their clan. With the advent of patrilineal societies, male clans started to emerge. During the Spring and Autumn period, after the Western Zhou dynasty (mid-11th century BCE – 771 BCE) established the feudal system, feudal lords were enfeoffed, leading to the practice of gender-specific marriages and social stratification based on clan names. Thus, in ancient times, men were referred to by their clan names, while women used their surnames. For instance, the recent TV series ‘The Legend of Mi Yue‘ is about the “Mi” clan, focusing on a queen dowager of the Chu state during the Warring States period, and highlights the female “surname” rather than the “clan name”. Similarly, Qu Yuan’s family name was ‘芈’ (Pinyin: Mǐ), his clan name was ‘屈’ (Pinyin: Qu), his given name was ‘平’ (Pinyin: Ping), and his courtesy name was ‘原’ (Pinyin: Yuan). According to the customs of the time, as a male, he could be called ‘屈原’ (Qu Yuan), but never ‘芈原’ (Mǐ Yuan) which would have been perceived as a female name.

The critical juncture for the merging of ‘Family name’ and ‘Clan name’ occurred after the Qin and Han dynasties, after which the use of “clan names” gradually faded, leading to the unification of surnames for both men and women in China.

Over time, his name has come to be formally known as Qu Yuan.

Note: I am repeating the origin of ancient Chinese naming conventions.

China Dragon Boat Festival- zongzi

Part II: The Story Behind the China Dragon Boat Festival

In discussing Qu Yuan and the story of China’s Dragon Boat Festival, we must mention his masterpiece “Li Sao.” This great literary work is considered one of the treasures of ancient Chinese literature. Although “Li Sao” is written in classical Chinese, it is not entirely poetry but rather a form of prose-poetry. It reflects Qu Yuan’s love for the people and his pursuit of ideals.

Li Sao” was first collected in the “Chu Ci,” the first anthology of romantic poetry in Chinese literary history. This book not only includes Qu Yuan’s works but also the works of other poets from the state of Chu. Its compilation process and literary value hold a significant place in Chinese literary history.

“Li Sao” is narrated in the first person by Qu Yuan, expressing his loyalty to the country and his dedication to ideals. In the poem, he uses rich imagination and beautiful language to depict various mythical stories and strange scenes, showcasing his inner pain and conflicts.

Here is an excerpt from “Li Sao” and its English translation by Qian Zhongshu:








English Translation by Qian Zhongshu:

I heaved a long sigh and wiped away my tears,

To see the people in such distress and pain.

Though I love my own body and keep it clean,

Yet morning and evening I was misjudged.

Qu Yuan not only showcased his literary talents in “Li Sao” but also further solidified his place in Chinese literary history through other works like “Jiu Ge” and “Tian Wen.” His works garnered widespread attention during his time and had a profound influence on subsequent literary creation.

The uniqueness of “Li Sao” lies in its departure from the traditional four-character verse form, adopting lines of varying lengths, which gives the poetry more rhythm and expressiveness. This innovation not only enriched the forms of ancient Chinese literature but also provided new creative avenues for later poets.

Qu Yuan’s works are filled with love for his country and the pursuit of ideals. It is because of his great achievements that people understand why they commemorate him on this day, expressing their remembrance through dragon boat races and eating zongzi.

Part III: Traditional Customs and Cultural Integration of China Dragon Boat Festival

As one of China’s important traditional festivals, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated with a variety of activities. These include eating zongzi, dragon boat racing, hanging mugwort, and wearing fragrant sachets. This festival also incorporates cultural elements from various ethnic groups, creating a grand folk event that combines ancestor worship, prayers for blessings and warding off evil, entertainment, and food.

Celebratory Customs

Eating Zongzi: Zongzi, the representative food of this festival, comes in many varieties, both sweet and savory. The methods of making zongzi differ across regions. In the north, sweet zongzi often contain red dates, while in the south, savory zongzi are more common, filled with salted egg yolk, pork, and other ingredients. Zongzi are not only delicious but also symbolize the remembrance of Qu Yuan’s loyalty and integrity.

Dragon Boat Racing: This is one of the most vibrant activities during the festivities. People race boats decorated like dragons on the rivers to commemorate Qu Yuan. According to legend, the people of Chu State rowed their boats up and down the river in search of Qu Yuan’s body, which gave rise to this tradition.

Hanging Mugwort and Wearing Fragrant Sachets: During this time, people hang mugwort on their doors and wear fragrant sachets to pray for peace and health. Mugwort is believed to have the power to repel insects and ward off evil spirits, while the sachets usually contain traditional Chinese medicinal herbs that emit a pleasant fragrance and are thought to prevent disease.

Ethnic Diversity in Celebrations

The festival is not only a traditional celebration for the Han Chinese but is also enjoyed by various other ethnic groups, each with their unique customs. Over time, these celebrations have gradually merged, creating a colorful and diverse festival.

Han Chinese: The Han mainly celebrate with zongzi, dragon boat races, and hanging mugwort, emphasizing the commemoration of Qu Yuan and prayers for blessings and protection.

Shuizu (Water People): They hold unique ancestor worship ceremonies and celebrate with joyful songs and dances.

Naxi: This group conducts grand sacrificial ceremonies and prepares traditional Naxi cuisine for the festivities.

Tibetan: Known as the “Horse Racing Festival” among Tibetans, they celebrate with grand horse racing events and festive singing and dancing.

Yi: The Yi celebrate with the “Torch Festival,” using torches to ward off evil spirits and praying for blessings, accompanied by diverse ethnic performances.

Dai: The Dai celebrate with the Water Splashing Festival, using water to pray for blessings and symbolizing the washing away of the year’s misfortunes and disasters.

Gelao: This group holds traditional sacrificial activities and makes unique zongzi and delicacies for the celebration.

Pumi: The Pumi engage in distinctive ethnic song and dance performances and enjoy the festival with family and friends.


Of course, we must bring this article to a close. For me personally, from childhood to adulthood, zongzi wrapped in leaves has always been one of the most delicious foods. Whether sweet or savory, I love them all because each bite leads to endless aftertaste, suffusing the fragrance all around!



Published by: Mr. Mao Rida. You are welcome to share this article, but please credit the author and include the website link when doing so. Thank you for your support and understanding.

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