Dragon Boat Festival

Training for the Dragon Boat Races

Here in Taiwan it’s time for the annual Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 端午節), which also happens to be a school holiday. The traditional story of this festival is well summarized by Wikipedia:

The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (c. 340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi [a kind of glutinous rice snack eaten at this time]. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.

This is the version of the story which most Taiwanese learn in school, but the truth is much more interesting. I recently discovered that there is some nice work on the sociology of sports being done at National Taiwan Sport University 國立體育大學, where I found Li-Ke Chan’s paper “Post-colonial Dragon Boat Races: Some Preliminary Thoughts” [PDF]. Here’s what I learned from Chan’s paper:

First of all, it points out that dragon boat racing’s origins are probably much older than the official story suggests, having been carried out by Southern Chinese clans as part of shamanistic rituals viewed as barbaric by the Han Chinese. Moreover, conflicts between “Confucian orthodoxy with the popular ritual” frequently led to the rituals being banned. It was also banned as one of the “Four Olds” during the early Communist period.

Second, it also seems this ritual was also common in Qing-era Taiwan, such as 18th and 19th century rituals practiced by Plains Aborigines (Pingpu zu 平埔族) in what is now Ilan county (宜蘭縣). This was not a competitive event, and the author suggests that the dragon motif was absent as well, nonetheless they are sometimes talked about as “dragon boat” races in the archive. When the Japanese colonized Taiwan they tried to control these local rituals by limiting the number of days, or forcing them to adopt more Chinese-style Dragon Boat races. The Japanese were also trying to organize and control the Chinese Dragon Boat races, sometimes having them scheduled on Japanese Navy Day (which fell close to the Chinese holiday).

Finally, when the KMT took control of Taiwan after the war, they saw the Dragon Boat Festival as a means to promote their legitimacy as the true heirs to China’s traditional culture. Chan points out that this traditionalism also included an implicit modernization as the focus shifted from ritual to sports. The “race was officially organized first time under the name of ‘Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Cup.”

The article goes on to discuss the modern significance of the ritual in Hong Kong and China, but I’ll let you read that for yourself. If you can, find your local Chinatown and buy some zongzi!

9 thoughts on “Dragon Boat Festival

  1. I am not an expert, but I suspect it would be hard to say that dragon boat racing is older than Qu Yuan. Even if it dates only to the Warring States, that makes it neither a new tradition (2,200 years is hardly new!) nor meaningfully Han. Chu ‘nationals’ would probably not be considered culturally ‘Chinese’ if they were around today, whatever that means. I can’t remember exactly, but I think Chu is considered a non-Sinitic state with a non-Chinese-speaking general population (although, of course, Li Sao is written in Chinese, so evidently it had a Chinese-writing upper class). I may have misremembered, of course.

    I wonder about the aboriginal rituals you cite. That would indicate an enormous time-depth if the rituals are homologous, although a much reduced one if it’s a borrowing. I’d love to find out more, actually. Early Austronesian origins can probably be traced even further onto the Asian mainland through things like that, although it’s obviously speculative. Hmm…

  2. Further transformations of the Dragon Boat Race include the annual example in Yokohama, Japan, which may (I need to check this) be justified by the importance to the city’s self-image of Yokohama’s Chinatown. The Dragon Boat crews are mainly Japanese, and at least one is made up of gaijin (Westerners) who are members of the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club, which was founded in 1868 (Meiji 1) as the Yokohama Cricket Club. This crew now includes both men and women and the day is treated, like other club events, as an excuse for horsing around and consumption of large amounts of beer.

  3. Dragon Boat Racing, as McCreery points out, is a growing international sport. Here in Charlotte, North Carolina, I helped with a group largely consisting of the Asian Chamber of Commerce start an annual race, where I first learned about the many groups here in the US that practice and travel together to different competitions. They are sometimes outgrowths of different groups, i.e., a Laotian social group or breast cancer survivors. In the inaugural race, our college sponsored a boat (which I rowed in, missing my chance at crew as an undergrad), and somehow we managed to win first place!

    I remember watching races in Nanjing about 5 years ago, in support of the SAIS-Nanjing crew, which got pummeled by the corporate-sponsored boats. I’m wondering if Chan’s article looked at the boats themselves – I’ve heard that the best boats for dragon-boat racing are German. I looked into buying a boat for the college (back then, around US $25,000 complete, with trailer), which is how I found out about the German boats from other more experienced, more knowledgeable racers.

  4. On a personal note, Dragon Boat Racing appears to be an example of a relatively small set of celebrations that are (1) associated with particular ethnic identities and (2) attract participation from people who have little or no claim on the identity in question. The other examples with which I am familiar are Samba (Brazilian carnival), St. Patrick’s Day (Irish), Burns Suppers (Scottish), and Oktoberfest (German). What is it about these celebrations that makes them, while closely identified with some particular ethnicity, eminently portable across cultures?

    What other examples have I missed? Any ideas?

  5. John, what about Mardi Gras? Is it New Orleans or Brazilian? While popular in the U.S., it still retains it French flavour, as well as a Brazilian cultural dialect in the festivals in Rio.

    Mother’s Day has an American origin and celebrations throughout the world; although, most have no knowkledge of its U.S. heritage. Is Cinco de Mayo becoming more widespread beyond its Mexican origins? Certainly Wikipedia notes its appearance on Malta, of all places.

  6. Mardi Gras? Possibly, but at least in the Far East it is overshadowed by Carnival in Rio. Also, while people flock to Mardi Gras for the fun, as they do to other festivals in other parts of the world, the element of psuedo-ethnic identification (we’re all Irish or Scots or whatever tonight) isn’t clear to me.

    There are, of course, plenty of global holidays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, etc., that have been picked up and promoted by commercial interests around the world. There are also plenty of examples of tourists dressing up in native costume. What interests me is the intersection, the event that is both global in distribution and retains a specific ethnic identity that people who are not members of the ethnic group in question find appealing.

  7. I agree with you view on Mardi Gras, that its appeal for street parties extends beyond its ethnic identity. Indeed, we might want to consider where Mardi Gras is held–cities require a certain diversity to attract participants to engage in floats etc. It also seems to coincide with commercial interests, given the lack of holidays that time of year. However, unlike Dragon Boat races, Mardi Gras is fixed according to the calendar. Dragon Boat races seem to occur at different times in different locales.

    I think in the case of Cinoc de Mayo we may be seeing the spread of a ethnic identified holiday (why holidays with a drinking theme seem to spread is beyond me), but with the spread of Mexican/Latino identiies acros the U.S., Cinco de Mayo is beign introduced into the general population. By contrast, Mummers seem to be on the way out.

  8. Do Cinco de Mayo celebrations attract people who are not Mexican/Latino but pretend to be during the celebration?

    Speaking primarily from experience in Japan and looking for ethnographic reporting from other places, I know, for example, that Japanese have gotten into Samba, Dragon Boat Races, Irish Pubs, Scottish Dancing, and Oktoberfest in a big way. Turn up at any of these events and you will see participants from a wide range of countries including lots of Japanese. In each of these cases, particular historical factors can be cited, e.g., the role played by Scottish and Irish expatriates in building the British Empire, or the return of Brazilian-Japanese to Japan during the economic good times of the 1980s. One has to wonder, too, if the growing popularity of Dragon Boat Races has something to do with the rising importance of China in the world system. But is this the whole story? Why are there no Russian or Ottoman or Hindu or Arab holidays embraced by non-members of the relevant ethnic groups with similar fervor? Are some ethnic traditions more appealing than others? If so, why? These are the questions that tickle my fancy.

  9. John, I don’t know about Cinco de Mayo celebrations in general, but where I am they tend to be enveloped within a wider folk festival. But that may be because we are a smaller center and haven’t the population to justify a festival dedicated to Cinco de Mayo alone.

    As for Dragon Boat races, they were begun here in 1995, introduced during the 1994 Commonwealth Games. It was spearheaded by the President of the Victoria Chinese Commerce Association, bringing the races during the Games. Thus, it is more of a local origin than a response to a rising China. As to the greater popularity across the country, I am not sure and suspect you may be right regarding the affect of China’s recent rise as influencing participation and popularity of the races.

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