The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival: Race to Save Qu Yuan

About the Dragon Boat Festival’s Story

This one is my favorite Chinese festival that I’ve learned about yet! Mostly because I think the origin of the story is fascinating. I even just recently discovered that Phoenix celebrates with its own boat races! So it’s possible that wherever you live, you can find a celebration to join in on too! I’m definitely looking forward to this year’s Dragon Boat Festival in Phoenix.

The whole thing seems to have started in honor of a man named Qu Yuan, although there has been some debate about it. Not about whether Qu Yuan was real, but whether his life inspired the beginnings of this great festival.

Legend or not, the story is popularly accepted as the most important story for the festival today. Qu Yuan was a great Chinese poet in the 3rd century, as well as a Minister to the Emperor. He penned many poems that you can find online or in stores today, such as, “The Nine Songs” and “Heavenly Questions”. However, because of gossip and rumors, the Emperor was tricked into releasing Qu Yuan from his court and leaving him to be exiled. In his absence, the great kingdom began to crumble from the bad advice and treachery of the very advisors that had wanted Qu Yuan gone. He was devastated, not knowing what to do, and eventually drowned himself. He had been a respected man and influential poet. In a traditional act to protect his drowned body, people lined the river in their boats hitting the water, and doing other small rituals to scare away any evil and guide his spirit. Sadly, the body was said to have never been found. Today, the tradition of honoring Qu Yuan has been carried on in the Dragon Boat races, where contestants row to be the first to save Qu Yuan.

Some people speak of Qu Yuan’s suicide and the villagers’ search as a legend – something historical, but not authenticated. Others, like the man in this video below, proudly claim it as their family history.

A wonderful report of the traditions of the Dragon Boat Festival and the depth of meaning this holiday has in China.

While super interesting and educational for an adult, I’d be shocked if any of you called over your kids to come watch the video above with you. If you did, please send me their reactions. I’m impressed. The little ones would be bored out of their mind in about 10 seconds. So I hunted through YouTube for you to find the most child-friendly, even two-year-old-approved version of the tale I could find. And you know what? I think I learned even more of the history and background of Qu Yuan from this animation!

Perfect for children of all ages! My 2-year-old was happy to watch the animation, but a 10-year-old could still find some complex themes to discuss in this short clip.

Dragon Boat Activities

1.Watch the above animation and talk to your children about the history of the Dragon Boat Festival. Depending on their age and understanding you could ask them a number of questions on the different themes of this story:

  • Who was Qu Yuan? Why did the Emperor stop trusting him? What can happen when we tell lies about people?
  • Compare and contrast Qu Yuan and Zhang Yi. Who was a good/bad advisor? Why? What can you do if you see someone act like Zhang Yi and tell lies about another person?
  • What traditions did the villagers repeat every year to honor Qu Yuan? Why did they throw rice in the water and slap their oars?

2. Create your own Dragon Boats!!! I have created Expedition Dragon Boats complete with 3 Expeditions (lessons) for children pre-K to Kindergarten to learn all about the Dragon Boat Festival while practicing their numbers, fine motor skills, STEM activities, and coloring pages!

Expedition Dragon Boat Festival

Detailed instructions for 3 Expeditions, Printable Dragon Boat, Quick Access to books and videos about the origins of the festival, Counting and Color Matching activities

$1.00

3. TRIGGER WARNING – Now this one is a little heavy, TRIGGER WARNING!

But there is a very important fourth theme in the story of Qu Yuan – suicide. Maybe someone close to your family has committed suicide. This festival could be a time of the year to talk about how we can try to prevent suicide, build others up, and preserve the memories of loved ones. Like the villagers who scared away the fish from Qu Yuan’s lost body, we can interrupt people from speaking poorly of others who are with us or passed on. We can “race” to save our loved ones by simply being kind. Be the first to say something kind, the first to help, the first to smile, the first to offer a hand.


This dragon boat festival may be different than years past, but the lessons remain the same. Hopefully these activities help you to make the most of this exciting holiday at home!

Buy it now, or head over to my shop to purchase it with the full Expedition China Bundle!

Expedition Dragon Boat Festival

Detailed instructions for 3 Expeditions, Printable Dragon Boat, Quick Access to books and videos about the origins of the festival, Counting and Color Matching activities

$1.00

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