The Dragon Boat Festival and Sticky Rice Balls – Chinese Legend

Context: I went home for lunch over the weekend, and my mother (SS) had bought sticky rice balls for the Dragon Boat Festival in celebration of the Duan Wu holiday which was to be held on May fifth of the following week. Since we had extra rice balls, we ate some for lunch and I asked my mom why people celebrated the Duan Wu holiday using dragon boats and sticky rice balls.


SS: “The Duan Wu holiday is celebrated in honor of the famous poet Qu Yuan, who committed suicide because he felt overwhelming for the Chu capital being captured by the Qin empire. You know about Qu Yuan right?”

Me: “Yea I’ve heard about him in Chinese class and read some of his poems. According to legend, he committed suicide by jumping into a river right?”

SS: “That’s correct! There were many people who respected him and raced out in boats to find and save his body, which is the origin behind the dragon boat races. No one knew if his body was ever found, so the people made sticky rice balls so the fish in the river would eat the rice instead of his body just in case. It is said that even the fish would respect his body and eat the rice balls instead because they felt compassion for Qu Yuan. That is why people throw the rice balls into rivers and eat them on May fifth every year”

Background: This legend is very popular in China, and many people know it and celebrate the Duan Wu holiday. The river where the famous poet Qu Yuan is said to have died is near the city where my father grew up, so he has been to the river and attended the festivals near the river personally many times. My mother first heard the legend from her parents when she was young and celebrating the Duan Wu holiday, and later moved to the same city as my father for high school where she also was a part of the holiday customs there. 

Thoughts: When I was younger, I never really thought about the reasoning behind all the traditions that my family and community performed. However, I realized from this interaction that the Duan Wu holiday demonstrates a lot of Chinese values that were present in my household while I was growing up. For example, the holiday is celebrated in remembrance of Qu Yuan, and the traditions that are practiced during the holiday originated from what happened throughout history in order to honor and respect Qu Yuan’s body. I was able to see that remembering and honoring ancestors is important to Chinese culture and that these values connect with a lot of the folk beliefs and stories that I was told in my childhood.