Duanwu is the Chinese name for a summertime festival many of you across the world may be familiar with, as a great number of nations have adopted some of the traditions themselves. Duanwu occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar and is commonly known in the west as the Dragon Boat Festival.

Dragon Boat Crews Preparing to Race on Duanwu
Dragon Boat Crews Preparing to Race on Duanwu

Most holidays and festivals take their cues from ancient practices and rites regarding the changing of the seasons and the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth associated with the sun. In the fall, I posted an article about the Mid-Autumn Festival here in China which corresponds to Chuseok in Korea and Thanksgiving in the Americas. Likewise, Duanwu is the Chinese equivalent of Independence Day in the US and other Midsummer Festivals around the globe (some of which call to mind a certain Elizabethan playwright).

For this festival, Jen and I traveled to the city of Huai’an for the last time to visit her family and share in their customs. We ate zongzi (sweetened rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed to perfection) and exchanged fivecolored bracelets (typically reserved for children under 14) meant to ward off evil spirits. We enjoyed their company and even took a canal cruise to an ancient part of the city where one of China’s most famous novelists lived back in the 16th century.

Huai'an City in Jiangsu Province - Hometown to some of Jen's 'In-Laws'
Huai’an City in Jiangsu Province – Hometown to some of Jen’s ‘In-Laws’

To our dismay, there weren’t actually any dragon boat races in Huai’an (though we did take a nice leisurely boat ride down the grand canal that connects Beijing to Hangzhou). The races only occur where rivers are widest (and not in canals), so towns send a single crewed boat to represent them in regional races across the country. The dragon boat looks much like that of a collegiate rowing boat with the addition of a colorful and ornately carved dragon head at the front. The crew consists of 20 paddlers, 1 drummer (to maintain tempo), and 1 sweep (to steer) and the boats can vary in length and type of wood.

The races are very competitive, their crews training year round for a single race on this single day. The Duanwu race is a sprint of 500 meters (though some regions choose 1000 or 2000 instead), during which teams must complete two loops that includes three 180 degree turns. Occasionally, regions will decide to host long distance endurance race events, which may cover as many as 100 kilometers. Spectators drive in from all over to cheer on their favorite boat crew.

Jen Pretending to be a Dragon (she doesn't have to work too hard)...
Jen Pretending to be a Dragon (she doesn’t have to work too hard)…

In the United States and Canada, dragon boat races are held in many major cities, including Philadelphia. Every day, along the Schuylkill River, crews practice and race. For those of you not from the area, you can drive along I-76 and see the many boathouses, known as Boathouse Row, where local colleges and universities store their boats and racing gear. But during Duanwu, the dragon boats come out to play as well.

Dragon Boats in Action!
Dragon Boats in Action!


The Schuylkill Dragons are an all women’s dragon boat racing team founded in 2001, and they’re not the only ones. The Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival hosts dozens of teams and has for dozens of years. I, for one, cannot wait to be back home during one of the races so that I can attend and cheer on the crews myself (something I didn’t get to do while in China).


Until Next Time…



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