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The history and traditions behind the Dragon Boat Festival

By Catharina Cheung 6 February 2018

Header image courtesy of Samuel Wong (Unsplash)

Originally published by Sam the Local. Last updated by Catharina Cheung.

We’re sure everyone is very much looking forward to the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival public holiday, but how much do you know of the history behind it? There is much more to this long-standing Chinese festivity than watching the Dragon Boat races and being bombarded with rice dumplings by what seems like every restaurant in Hong Kong! Here’s what you need to know why we celebrate the festival, the events and festivities, and the food that goes along with it.

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Photo credit: The Epoch Times

Origins

The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month every year, reflected in its Chinese name (Tuen Ng Jit in Cantonese; Duan Wu Jie in Mandarin) which means “opening the fifth.” Aside from Hong Kong and mainland China, other Asian countries also celebrate this festival, including Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Despite the upbeat and colourful festivities that surround it, Tuen Ng is actually rooted in a sorrowful story.

As legend has it, there once was a minister and poet named Qu Yuan during the Warring States period. He lived in the kingdom of Chu and served as a high-ranking official for the Chu royal household. When his king decided to join forces with the state of Qin, which was gaining traction and power through rampant corruption, the upright Qu Yuan was against the alliance and therefore accused of treason by political enemies and the furious monarch. When the Qin state eventually turned on Chu and captured its capital city, Qu Yuan committed suicide in despair, choosing to cast himself into the Miluo River instead of living under the rule of the conquerors.

Because he was a much-admired figure in society, the people rowed out onto the river to retrieve his body, but were unable to find it. They then did the only thing they could: dropping balls of rice into the river so the fish would eat them instead of the revered Qu Yuan’s body and alternatively banging gongs and drums on their boats to scare the fish away. This was said to have sparked the tradition of dragon boating on the river, as well as the eating of rice dumplings.

Dragon boats

Steeped in ancient ceremonial, ritualistic, and religious traditions, dragon boats are said to have originated from the Pearl River Delta region of southern China. They are traditionally made of teak wood, but different kinds of wood were used when it eventually spread to other regions of China.

The usage of the dragon motif might be traceable to the tradition of dragon worship. Out of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is the only mythical creature, which shows its lofty status in the Chinese worldview. Aside from being a symbol of royalty, dragons were also believed to be the rulers of the water element, dominating the oceans, rivers, lakes, and also the clouds and rainfall. As a result, people used to worship dragon deities to encourage rainfall—much needed to ensure good crops and harvest, and therefore the survival and prosperity of the people. This draconian symbol is also used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck, as the Chinese believe the fifth lunar month is inauspicious.

A specific ritual pertaining to dragon boats is called ‘awakening the dragon,’ during which a Taoist priest paints the pupils onto the eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat. Doing so symbolises the dragon ending its period of slumber and waking up to an energised spirit, thereby driving the boat and its team to success. Nowadays, the ritual can also be completed with a chosen representative instead of a religious figure.

The ornate dragon head and tail are usually removed during practice sessions and only rigged up for race events. These days, dragon boats are typically made of carbon fibre, fibreglass, and other materials which are more lightweight than solid wood.

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The dragon boating sport

Anthropologists and sinologists believe that the use of dragon boats for racing purposes originated in southern China more than 2,500 years ago, roughly during the same period when the ancient Greek games were being established in Olympia. The modern version is a sport conducted on brightly coloured vessels shaped like dragons since they are a traditionally auspicious animal in Chinese culture.

Each long and narrow boat carries a crew of 22 people: 20 paddlers sitting in rows of two, one drummer, and one sweep. The drummer produces the thrumming heartbeat of the dragon boat, which serves to guide and synchronise the paddlers with a rhythmic beat, dictating the frequency of their strokes. The first pair of paddlers are interchangeably called pacers, strokes, or timers. They are the ones responsible for synchronising their strokes and leading the pace for the rest of the team. Lastly, the sweep steers the dragon boat, using an oar as a rudder.

Races are typically sprint events with distances such as 200-, 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-metre races, though the mid-ground 500-metre is the most common distance. It became inaugurated as an international sport starting from Hong Kong in 1976, and modern dragon boat racing is organised at an international level by the International Dragon Boat Federation, of which 72 countries and territories hold membership.

It is typical for larger well-established Hong Kong companies to have their own dragon boat teams, who will usually enter into annual races—a good chance to flash their logos or slogans on the backs of their team jersey for a bit of publicity!

The dragon boat festivities

Every year, an estimated 30,000 of the world’s top dragon boat athletes flock to Hong Kong to compete in the summer Dragon Boat Festival races. A lot of the events are focused around the traditional fishing village of Stanley, home to the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships. The races do also take place across the territories, including in Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Castle Peak Bay, Aberdeen, Tai O, Discovery Bay, Cheung Chau, and Tai Po.

Spectators usually flood the waterfront in these locations, contributing to a merry-making party vibe. If you’d rather not mingle with the hoi polloi, one of the best ways to view the races is from a junk boat. Get a junk party together, charter a boat, and take a front row seat at the dragon boating races on the water!

The competitions are usually followed by the Dragon Boat Carnival, held along the Victoria Harbour promenade, where water-based activities mix with beer-fuelled fun and live music entertainment. For something a bit more traditional, head to the sleepy village of Tai O on Lantau Island, where they will host a God’s Parade, also known as the Dragon Boat Water Parade.

This parade dates back more than a century ago when the area was hit by a plague. In an effort to halt the epidemic, local fishermen borrowed deity statues from surrounding temples and paraded them through the town’s waterways on dragon boats. The plague did die down, but the custom still carries on to this day. Deities are collected a day before from the Yeung Hau, Tin Hau, Kwan Tei, and Hung Shing Temples. A ritual called ‘picking the greens’ is performed before they set off, which involves plucking fresh grass from the nearby hillsides and placing the blades inside the dragon’s mouth. The statues are then towed around Tai O’s iconic stilt houses, followed by races, a send-off ritual, and a large feast to round off the festivities.

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The zongzi

As mentioned in the festival’s origins lore, rice dumplings—known in Chinese as zongzi—are eaten to commemorate Qu Yuan. Zongzi are pyramid-shaped bundles of glutinous rice containing a variety of fillings. Southern Chinese-style zongzi, which is what’s typical in Hong Kong, usually include an assortment of ingredients such as mung beans, salted egg yolk, pork belly, taro, shredded pork or chicken, Chinese sausage, and shiitake mushrooms. These are all scooped into a cone folded from a couple of bamboo leaves, wrapped up, and tied together with string.

Approximately a month before the Dragon Boat Festival itself, you’ll see Hong Kong restaurants advertising their rice dumplings; the famous brands typically sell out very quickly. You’ll also find them hanging from many a shop window. To cook zongzi, all you have to do is steam or boil them until piping hot, then unwrap and enjoy!

While most zongzi have savoury fillings, one of our favourite types is the sweet variety known as alkaline rice dumplings—gaan shui jung (鹼水粽 in Cantonese). Not the most appealing of names, we know, but the alkaline in its name actually refers to lye water, a potassium carbonate (which is high in pH, and therefore alkaline as opposed to acidic) used in brewing and baking. Before you blanch and write this off completely, lye water is also used to make ramen noodles, and Western foods such as bagels and pretzels, so chances are you’ll already have consumed it before! It is this lye water which gives gaan shui jung an attractive amber colour and a slightly translucent appearance.

Gaan shui jung are typically made with a simple filling of red bean paste, lotus paste, or none at all. Its texture is a lot softer and chewier than its savoury counterparts and is key to its enjoyment along with the subtle flavours. This is served with something sweet to dip it in; some people use sugar or honey, but most Hongkongers will vehemently tell you the best accompaniment has to be Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Experiment a little, tell us your favourite dumpling flavours, and have a great Dragon Boat Festival!

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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