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A look into the history & traditions of Dragon Boat Festival

By Catharina Cheung 6 February 2018 | Last Updated 10 June 2021

Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Maritime Museum

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

We’re sure that everyone is very much looking forward to the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival public holiday on 14 June, but how much do you actually 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 about why we celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, the events and festivities themselves, and the food that goes along with it.

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Photo: “Dragon boat racing at Spring Festival.” Oil on canvas, late nineteenth century. On loan from Mr Anthony J. Hardy. On display at the exhibition “Maritime Crossroads: Millenia of Global Trade in Hong Kong,” 3 June to 12 August 2021, at Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Origins of the Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month, reflected in its Chinese name (端午節; dyun1 ng5 zit3), which means “opening the fifth.” Aside from Hong Kong and mainland China, other Asian countries that also celebrate this festival include Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Despite the upbeat and colourful merriment that surrounds it, the festival is actually rooted in a sorrowful story.

Qu Yuan as depicted in the “Nine Songs,” imprint of presumably the fourteenth century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As legend has it, there once was a minister and poet named Qu Yuan (屈原) during the Warring States period. He lived in the kingdom of Chu and served as a high-ranking official for the royal household. When his king decided to join forces with the state of Qin—which was gaining 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, Qu Yuan committed suicide, 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 they were unable to find it. As a result, they then did the only thing they could: dropping balls of rice into the river so the fish would eat the rice balls instead of 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—zongzi (粽子) in Mandarin or zung (糭) in Cantonese.

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. These boats 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 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.

Photo: Cheung Yin (via Unsplash)

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 with an energised spirit, thereby driving the boat and its team to success. Nowadays, this ritual can be completed with a non-religious representative as well.

Due to their precious nature, the ornate dragon head and tail are usually removed during practice sessions and only rigged up for race day 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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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 traditionally auspicious animals 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 rhythmic heartbeat of the dragon boat, which serves to guide and synchronise the paddlers, 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—it is considered a good chance to flash their logos or slogans on the backs of their team jersey for a bit of publicity, as dragon boat races are well-attended.

Dragon Boat festivities

Every year, an estimated 30,000 dragon boat athletes flock to Hong Kong from around the world 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. Races also take place 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 would 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!

Boat racing competitions are usually followed by the Dragon Boat Carnival, held along the Victoria Harbour promenade, where water-based activities are paired 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 Gods 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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Rice dumplings

Rice dumplings—known as zongzi (粽子) in Mandarin or zung (糭) in Cantonese—are eaten to commemorate Qu Yuan. These pyramid-shaped bundles of glutinous rice contain 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 scooped into a cone folded from 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 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 (鹼水粽; gaan2 seoi2 zung2). 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) 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 you’ll probably have consumed it before! It is this lye water that gives the dumplings an attractive amber colour and a slightly translucent appearance.

Alkaline rice dumplings 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

Former senior editor

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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