The Dragon Boat Legend

Discover one of the world's oldest cultural festivals

Chinese Dragon Boat (Mid-late 19th century) by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

How racing dragon boats became a renowned festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, primarily celebrated in Central and Southern China, is mostly associated with long, slender boats that are decorated with a dragon’s head and tail, racing on the water propelled by between 20 and 90 paddlers. However, that wasn’t always the case.

Dragon boat racing at Spring Festival (1860)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Dragon boat racing at the Spring Festival (1860)

Chinese Dragon Boat (Mid-late 19th century) by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the oldest traditional festivals in the world and is always celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (sometime in late May to mid-June in today’s calendar). The best known story locates the festival’s origin to the period of the Warring States (403-211BCE) in the city of Yueyang (Hunan), which was then part of the ancient Kingdom of Chu.

Quaint Craft in the Annual Dragon Boat Festival (1902) by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

The state official Qu Yuan (340-278BCE), sometimes known as the father of Chinese poetry (which is why this is also Poet’s Day), committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. When he walked into the river, some say carrying a heavy stone, friends rushed to try to save him. They failed, but the effort gave rise to a festival in which boats rush across the water to re-enact the tragic event.

Aberdeen Dragon Boat Race 2011 (2011) by Hong Kong Maritime MuseumHong Kong Maritime Museum

Scuplture of Hai Longwang (Dragon King of the Sea) (1638)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Of course, when one thinks about the festival’s Chinese name, the probability is that the origin is much, much older and is actually connected with very ancient beliefs in the power of the spirits that animated the world and the need to propitiate them. The wish to appease the Water Dragons, who were the spirits of the rivers, will have started on the banks of the great rivers with China’s first agriculturalists. Anthropologists think that the earliest boat races were a sort of ritual combat, connected with ceremonies conducted as spring passed to summer, to ensure ample rainfall, ward off pestilence, and reduce flood damage, etc. 

Festival of the Dragon Boat from Chinese Empire (1858) by Thomas AllomHong Kong Maritime Museum

It followed that people who drowned in the event when they fell from their boats or their boats capsized, were thus sacrifices to the Dragon deity. It may be that these more ancient traditions were unified with the later sacrifice of Qu Yuan into a single origin myth.

Wood carved dragon boat figurehead, Ming dynasty (1368/1644)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Dragon Boat Festival Traditions

The Dragon Boat Festival is obviously mostly associated with racing on the water in long, thin boats propelled by between 20 and 90 paddlers and decorated with a dragon’s head and tail. However, there are many more traditions that form part of this important annual festival. 

Zhong Kui Xiang Mo TuHong Kong Maritime Museum

In some areas bundles of banyan tree twigs, artemisia and calamus are tied together at the time of the festival and fastened to the front doors or gates of homes. The aim is to keep the pestilences of the summer at bay. To help out, householders may paste up pictures of Zhong Gui on their doors - the catcher of demons. There is also a belief that someone who successfully stands an egg on its end at noon on the day of Tuen Ng (Dragon Boat Festival) will have good luck for the rest of the year.

Carved mother-of-pearl shell decorated with dragon boats, 19th centuryHong Kong Maritime Museum

19th century dragon boats carved into a mother-of-pearl shell

Dragon Boats at Aberdeen Hong Kong showing Careening Island (1923)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The Dragon Boat Festival in Hong Kong

It is Hong Kong’s reasonable boast that its gift to the world has been dragon boating. The participation of Hong Kong’s foreign residents in the festival, beginning in the late 1960s, opened the way to a parallel celebration of the festival alongside the traditional fishermen’s races. 

Dragon Boat Races in Aberdeen in the 1990s (1990/1999) by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

By the 1980s, especially in Stanley, ‘mixed’ racing – in every sense including local/foreign, male/female crews and all female crews – had become the norm. Hong Kong had become the venue of its own new ‘international’ sport. As a traditional religious ritual, the one known as The Dragon Boat Water Parade held annually in Tai O, Lantau is already inscribed on China’s third national list of intangible cultural heritage!

Dragon head by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

When a race takes place, before it begins you’ll see an important ceremony performed. This is the ritual ‘Awakening of the Dragon’ in which a Daoist priest (or these days a VIP) dots the eye of the boat’s dragon head. This wakes it up and energizes its Qì (spirit) to help the boat win, and encourage the dragon to ensure prosperity for the coming year. 

Dragon boat race in Aberdeen (2011) by Hong Kong Maritime MuseumHong Kong Maritime Museum

In theory every boat should have an identical treatment. No doubt in the past they did…but these days time is of the essence!

Credits: Story

Created by the Hong Kong Maritime Museum

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