dragon boat festival

Female athletes compete in the 2012 Dragon Boat Races in June 2012 in Kaohsiun, Taiwan. (Photo: Shi Yali/Shutterstock)

This weekend, 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.

docked dragon boat

A dragon boat prepares for launch in Hong Kong. (Photo: 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 20.

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

homemade rice dumpling

Celebrations often include hand-wrapped rice treats. (Photo: 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. (Photo: 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

Dragon boat races in Ottawa. (Photo: 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.

Related on MNN:

Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.