Do you know the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival and the famous Dragon Boat Race?
This Chinese feast was also unknown to us until one of our interns arrived with many stories about one of his favorite travel destinations: Hong Kong.
The Dragon Boat Festival, or Festival Tuen Ng, is held every year, on the fifth day of the fifth month (Chinese calendar). It’s celebrated not only in Hong Kong, but also in other places such as Shanghai or Taiwan and in other cities or countries with a significant Chinese population. Nowadays this tradition is followed in more than 60 countries, with over 60 million international participants – still the most famous one is in Hong Kong.
This event is not only a boat race, even if the race is the most popular happening during this day. The Chinese month in which the festival occurs is actually considered an unlucky month, as it coincides with the beginning of the warm weather season and outbreaks of sickness epidemics.
In 2011, the Dragon Boat Festival will occur on the 6th of June.
History of the Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival took its origin from a Chinese legend. Tuen Ng commemorates the death of a popular Chinese national hero, Qu Yuan, who drowned in the Mi Lo River over 2000 years ago, while protesting against the emperor and the corruption of the leaders. According to the legend, people have tried to save him: they banged on drums to scare fish away and threw rice cakes into the sea, to prevent them from eating this hero’s body.
Present day rituals
To keep the legend alive, during this day there are a lot of ritual practices. The main one is to cook and eat “Zongzi”: a cake of rice wrapped in bamboo. There are different kinds of cakes: sweet ones made with rice, paste of dates and honey, or savory ones made with rice and fresh meat or ham.
Nowadays the cakes can be quite different from in the old days, made with ‘new’ products like salted meat, egg, green beans or peanuts and lotus seeds.
People also decorate their front door with herbs for protection, called “chāng pú“. Effigies of Zhong Kui, a god slayer of demons, are also used for protection of the family.
Another ritual practice is especially for children. Small bags are filled with incense and a white powder consisting of Artemisia, Acorus or other perfumed plants, and children wearing the bag are protected.
The highlight of this festival is obviously the Dragon boat race, where gorgeously decorated boats compete ferociously in a thrilling atmosphere. This practice is very old, it stems from the same era as the first Olympic games!
The race is meant to awaken the highly respected dragon god, who is in hibernation. The awakening of the dragon god, master of rivers and seas, maker of clouds and rain, will ensure a bountiful harvest to ward off diseases.
The symbolism behind the race is that after the dragon boats sail in the water, the water is considered blessed and people can then go for a swim or just touch the water, in order to stay healthy all year.
In the past this rite included fighting boats, where the drowning of some participants in the action was seen as a sacrifice, but obviously nowadays it’s just a boat race and has even become a sport.
Dragon boat racing rules
Dragon boats are similar to canoe’s, with a dragon’s head at the front and a dragon’s tail at the back. There are 3 different sizes of dragon boats, but sizes are strict and must be approximately the same and the boats must be made from Camphor wood:
A standard (medium) dragon boat is 11.66 meters (38’10”) in length, 1.06 meters (3’6”) wide and 43.18 cm deep (about 16 inches).
The dragon boat paddles are also bound to strict rules. They must be the same for everybody, with specific dimensions.
Only the decoration and colors may vary.
The largest dragon boats hold between 40 and 50 people; the smallest boats can take a maximum of 10 people.
Teams on classic dragon boats consist of 22 people, of which 20 are paddlers, 1 is a drummer (to keep pace) and 1 steersman.
Paddlers are sitting in pairs, side by side on 10 rows of seats, facing in the direction of the boat’s movement.
They are placed in the boat, taking into account several criteria:
– Small and light paddlers in the front
– Taller and stronger in the middle
– The worst in the back!
People in the front of the dragon boat have an important role, because they decide the paddling rhythm following the drummer. The drummer and steersman are standing up.
As a spectator you will probably not hear the orders that are given to the paddlers, so here are a few orders paddlers can be given from before to the start of the race:
- “Back it down”: Paddling backward, to adjust the boat on the starting line
- “Paddles up”: Ready to paddle, the paddle above the water
- “Take it away”: Start paddling
- “Let it run”: Stop paddling and let the boat glide
- “Hold the boat”: Put the paddles in the water to stop the boat
- “Attention please”: Immerse half of the paddle’s blade until the starting signal.
There are also different categories during the competition. Three different race lengths are held, according to the boat size: 250m (820 ft) for small boats, 500m (1640 ft) for standard boats or an endurance race of 2000m (6561 ft).
It is not known to many, that in the past, Dragon Boat Racing was an activity reserved for men only. Women were totally forbidden to even touch a Dragon Boat, as it is the symbol of male vigor.
Nowadays, with more than 60,000 people practicing this sport, the mentality has changed; there are mixed races too.
Dragon boat festival ambience
This is also a nice moment for spectators to admire the magnificence of all the dragon boats, and the sometimes really funny costumes of some participants. You will have the opportunity to see the energy that emerges when the competition starts off, and see the team giving all their power to reach the finish line in first position. It’s a total explosion of power and color.
Moreover, it offers a possibility to experience and participate in all the Chinese rites of this day, which is a great way to enjoy true Chinese culture.
Dragon boat festival Hong Kong information:
The Dragon Boat Race is located in Hong Kong at the Shing Mun River.
Getting there is easy by taxi (really cheap) or you can take the metro (East Rail Line), to Sha Tin or (Ma On Shan Line) to Sha Tin Wai Station.
If you look for a hotel nearby the dragon boat festival of Hong Kong we recommend the Regal Riverside Hong Kong Hotel. From the balcony of your room in this hotel you can basically see the Dragon boat race. Thats how close it is to the race.
Address: Shing Mun River, New Territories and other venues, Hong Kong
Video 1: The ambiance during the Dragon Boat Racing in Hong Kong
Video 2: Board camera, to realize how it’s difficult and needs training!
Dragon Boat Racing 2011 – Hong Kong weergeven op een grotere kaart