The Dragons Are Coming!

Colorful fireworks light up the sky ahead of the Dragon Boat Festival on Dongping River in Foshan, China. . windmoon/Shutterstock

This week, dragon boats will take to the water in China and in many parts of the world. It's all part of the annual Dragon Boat Festival, a tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.

A dragon boat prepares for launch in Hong Kong.
A dragon boat prepares for launch in Hong Kong. istolethetv/flickr

Also known as Duanwu, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated annually on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This year it falls on June 18.

Most celebrations include eating zongzi (sticky rice treats wrapped in bamboo leaves), drinking realgar wine (xiónghuángjiǔ) and racing dragon boats.

Hand-wrapped rice treats.
Celebrations often include hand-wrapped rice treats. Micah Sittig/flickr

Boat crews in dragon-shaped canoes rhythmically row as a drummer rapidly pounds out a beat.

drummers on the back of dragon boats
Drummers on the backs of the boats pound out fast beats for the rowers. Matteo X/flickr

During the festival, parents will often hang a perfumed pouch around their children's necks. The colorful and ornamental silk bags are said to ward off evil.

The racing part of the celebrating has spread worldwide. According to the International Dragon Boat Federation, international competitions have been held since 1976, when international crews were invited for the first time to compete in the traditional Hong Kong festival races.

dragon boat races in ottawa
Even Ottawa hosts a Dragon Boat Festival. Heather/flickr

The exact origins of the celebration are somewhat murky. In the most popular version, the festival commemorates the death of poet and minister Qu Yuan during the Warring States period of China's Zhou Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. The poet was exiled for political reasons and eventually committed suicide. The tales say mourning villagers raced out in their boats to try and recover his body. They dropped balls of sticky rice into the river to divert the attention of the fish.

Other stories about the festival's origins say it commemorates the deaths of other historical figures, has roots in dragon worship, or was a way to frighten off evil spirits.

The festival was recognized as an official holiday by the Chinese government in 2008.