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Dragon boating traces its origin to a philosopher and statesman named Qu Yuan (340 - 278 BC) who lived in China during the Warring States Period when China consisted of several regions each ruled by a different king. The kingdoms were constantly at war with one other, each one trying to defeat the others, but for a long while no single kingdom prevailed. Qu Yuan was a staunch patriot and proposed political reforms that would benefit the kingdom of Chu. However, his advice was not taken up by the king because the latter was influenced by corrupt officials who were constantly at the king's side. The officials managed to get Qu Yuan banished and he wandered the countryside writing poems that described his loyalty to the kingdom of Chu. Through his patriotic poems and dedication to justice he became much beloved by the people.

When Qu Yuan received news that the kingdom of Chu had been invaded he became disillusioned and, clutching a large rock, threw himself into the Mi Lo River in Hunan Province. When the villagers learnt of this they rushed to their boats to rescue him but to no avail. They then splashed their paddles hoping to scare away the monsters of the deep and threw items of food into the river to divert the fish from devouring Qu Yuan's body. This ritual was repeated in subsequent years and became an annual event on the fifth day of the fifth month (Double Fifth) of the lunar calendar in honor of the departed statesman. Steamed rice dumplings shaped into a pyramid (zong ze) were thrown into the river to symbolize the respect the people had for Qu Yuan. The villagers also took to their boats to splash their paddles and this eventually evolved into dragon boat races.