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Dragon Boat Race | © Frank Ou / Flickr
Dragon Boat Race | © Frank Ou / Flickr

A Guide to Celebrating Taiwan's Dragon Boat Festival

Picture of Ciaran McEneaney
Updated: 24 February 2017

The fifth day of the fifth lunar month is a very special day in Taiwan. Aside from the fact that it’s a public holiday, it’s also a fun-filled day when locals enjoy eating the sticky rice dumplings known as zongzi and watching or taking part in the many Dragon Boat races held throughout the country.

The history

Dragon Boat Festival is said to commemorate the death of a minister and poet named Qu Yuan. Accused of treason he spent many years in exile and when his former king was overthrown he committed suicide by throwing himself into the Miluo River. Locals raced out in their boats to rescue him, and when they couldn’t find him, they threw sticky rice balls into the river so the fish wouldn’t eat his body.

The locals racing to his aid are the apparent origin of the modern races, while the sticky rice balls are the reason that zongzi became the dish associated with the festival.

The races

These days, there are many dragon boat races throughout the world, but some of the most famous are in Taiwan. Each year scores of teams from across the globe come to Taiwan to test their rowing prowess against the local teams, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold.

The races take place all over the island, and while there is a lot of fun in taking part, all the teams are there to win. Each boat has a drummer who beats in time with the rowers and sometimes another member whose only purpose is to retrieve a flag attached to a buoy. The first team to reach their flag or cross the line is the winner.

The boats

The dragon boat industry in Taiwan is thriving, as teams commission new boats each year. These boats are sometimes crafted by master boat makers and hand painted with intricate designs and vibrant colors.

No two boats are said to be the same, and such is the popularity of the races throughout the world that there are even companies as far afield as Poland currently manufacturing them on a large scale much to the chagrin of local boat makers.

The traditions

Zongzi |© Midori / Wikimedia

Zongzi |© Midori / Wikimedia

Taiwan is a country with many traditions, and there are quite a few related to this festival. Locals believe that an egg can stand on its end at 12 noon, while children will wear perfumed sachets to ward off evil. Homeowners will hang Calamus and Wormwood on doors or windows, which again is believed to ward off evil and bad luck, but the most popular tradition is, without a doubt, the eating of zongzi.

These sticky rice triangular dumplings are often loaded with nuts, meat, egg yolks, and mushrooms, all wrapped in a large leaf and tied with string. These delicious snacks are the highlight of the day for many and can be found on sale throughout the country in the weeks leading up to the festival.