Drums pound out a steady rhythm. A furious flurry of paddles pushing water makes it appear as if a dragon is flying across the rainbows created by arcs of mist. A diverse group of people sit on the dragons’ backs, propelling them through the choppy sea. Crowds sporting the colours of their team cheer from the shore, encouraging their dragon to beat the others.
This is the scene at Hong Kong’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, which starts this year on June 9, 2016, with an invitation sporting event the next day that has developed from a much older tradition of dragon boat racing that can still be seen in many parts of Hong Kong. No longer the preserve of Chinese people, dragon boat racing has become a cross-cultural competitive sport. A similar scene plays out in many of the city’s bays and harbours, from Victoria Harbour to Tai O to Stanley.
As dragon boat fever grips Hong Kong, it’s worth asking: just where does this tradition come from?
“Opening the Seventh,” or Tuen Ng (dyun1 ng5 zit3 端午節), is an ancient festival that has come to be called Dragon Boat Festival. Falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, it is also called Double Fifth Festival (zung6 ng5 zit3 重五節). This festival involves racing long boats shaped like dragons along waterways and on the sea and eating rice dumplings. It marks the beginning of the summer, when the dominant, masculine yang principle becomes the ruling force. The feminine yin forces that preside over winter and spring are represented by a phoenix, while the yang is presented by a strong dragon.
There are various popular stories about how the festival began, the most notable among them being that of Qū Yuán, a poet and minister of the Warring States period (481-221 BC). He was a servant of the State of Chu who was slandered and forced into exile. Upon learning that Chu had fallen to the State of Qin, he drowned himself in Miluo River in Hunan province in 278 BC. The story goes on to say that villagers, so saddened by his loss, beat drums and splashed water to keep demons and bad spirits away. They also threw rice dumplings in the water to keep the fish from eating his body and appease his spirit.
The story of Qū Yuán is the most common, but there are similar tales. Wǔ Zǐxū was a politician of the Kingdom of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period (722 – 481 BC). After being slandered by a rival, the king made him commit suicide and his body was thrown in the river near Suzhou in Jiangsu province on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Another story is that of Cáo É, the daughter of a local shaman of Shangyu in Zhejiang province in 143 AD. The story tells us that Cáo É’s father fell in the river while conducting a ceremony to honour Wǔ Zǐxū. The girl swam in the river for three days trying to find his body before finally drowning. These figures have become a part of the Dragon Boat mythos, but the festival predates all of them.
All of the world’s cultures have their staple crop. These important plants are often elevated to magical status and are deeply symbolic within religious traditions. In China, that magical food is rice. Rice is offered in temples to gods and to the souls of the departed. During Dragon Boat Festival, a very particular kind of glutinous rice dumpling is prepared. Zung2 zi2 (粽子) vary in shape and filling, but Hong Kong is awash with them during the festival. Traditionally, they are triangular and wrapped in bamboo leaves. The fillings vary, but lean pork and fat zung are particularly common. The myth of Qū Yuán claims that his spirit appeared and instructed people to make them in the triangular shape to keep the dragons away from his body.
Far from the fire-breathing beasts of European folklore, Chinese dragons are generally water creatures. While there are a variety of different dragons, they are mainly rain gods of some sort. In ancient agrarian China, keeping the dragons appeased was a crucial task. Depending on the summer rains to provide the rice with much needed water, the farmers of ancient times carried out rituals to appease the river dragons so as to prevent droughts. Artefacts with depictions of dragon boat racing have been discovered in Qujialing, not far from the site of Qū Yuán’s drowning, dating from around 3000 BC, making the ritual sport the oldest in the world.
Traditional Chinese belief is that the fifth lunar month brings the five poisons (ng5 duk6 五毒), namely snakes, toads, lizards, centipedes and scorpions. To ward off these poisons, people fortified Chinese yellow wine with realgar (an arsenic sulphide) to make realgar wine (hung4 wong4 zau2 雄黃酒). Adults drank it and children had the realgar powder dabbed on their heads. It was believed that it would cure all ills, heal all scars, turn grey hair black, regenerate lost teeth and ward off snakes and evil spirits. A local doctor is said to have poured realgar wine into the Miluo River following Qū Yuán’s death, causing a dragon to float up and die on the surface. Dragons are not considered evil in Chinese culture, but like all spirits, they have the potential for good and bad depending on the actions of men – and in this case, the dragon was killed as a precaution.
Realgar is still found in some Chinese medicines, but the “male yellow wine,” as it is called in Chinese, has disappeared from Hong Kong with the modern knowledge that realgar is highly toxic. Also scarcely seen these days is the protective image of Zung1 Kwai4 (钟馗), a demonic ghost hunter and demon fighter whose image was traditionally placed on doors to protect from evil spirits during the Double Fifth.
Dragons, being water creatures, also rule over the seas. Fishermen looking to ensure safe passage and bountiful catches needed to appease dragons, so the practice extended to the costal communities. In villages like Tai O on Lantau, traditional Tuen Ng festivities still have a more ritualistic significance. The Tai O dragon boats sleep in a shed next to the Yeung Hau Temple, which is dedicated to Hau4 Wong4 (侯王), a god associated with the sea. Each year the eyes are painted onto the dragon heads, bringing them to life and transforming them into actual dragons. The statue of the god is taken out of the temple during the festival and is placed on a boat that is pulled along by a dragon boat as part of the village’s dragon boat parade. The gods from the three other temples in Tai O are also taken on the parade, which has been a local custom for over a century. Rather than race, the boats of the four fishermen’s associations parade around to ask the gods to bestow good fortune, favourable weather and safely at sea.
There is something quite comforting in knowing that such pockets of tradition still exist, even as most of Hong Kong is consumed by sporting frenzy. While poisonous drinks and demonic imagery have both faded into obscurity, the main elements of dragons and rice dumplings remain, both in the traditional and modern renditions of the Dragon Boat Festival. With a mix of traditional celebrations and big money sporting events, the Dragon Boat Festival is a part of Hong Kong’s heritage that will endure for generations to come.
The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival runs from June 10 to 12 at the Central harbourfront. Entry is free.
The Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade takes place on June 9. Entry is free.
The Dragon Boat Championships takes place on June 9 in Aberdeen, Cheung Chau, Discovery Bay, Sai Kung, Sha Tin and Stanley.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.