Racing for Dragon Boat Glory

A long-standing tradition, the dragon boat scene is exhilarating. If you haven’t yet observed the spectacle that is Dongguan’s competitive race for glory, be sure to witness the village teams this year.

Dragon Boat Festival in Dongguan is a big deal, especially to the people who live by the water. This tradition has been listed in the national intangible cultural heritage, featuring not one single dragon boat race, but a scene in which half of Dongguan’s villages take turns to race during the fifth month of the Chinese calendar (usually falls in June), which is actually rare in the country.

Kicking off with the “No.1 dragon boat scene”—Wanjiang’s dragon boat tournament—the races are going ahead continuously from the first to the 18th day in Dongguan’s 13 towns. For hundreds of years, in order to stagger the dates so people can watch as many races as they can, impressively villages in different towns agreed on a common timetable and followed it ever since. Thus, the dragon boat month formed. Wanjiang and Zhongtang are two major towns with the most spectacular races.

Dragon boat scenes are named after village names. And very often, a village’s scene will see several other villages’ teams participating. For example, the Xincun dragon boat scene taking place on the 14th day will invite teams from nearby villages, in addition to its own five village teams. So, it’s very important to alternate the dates so that one village can attend several different races and tournaments.

For some villagers, lack of waters does not prevent them from having the same fun. In Changping’s Hengjiangxia Village, due to its river’s transformation to fields, they parade a wooden dragon on Dragon Boat Festival instead. In Houjie’s Qiaotou Village, they’ve been celebrating with a wooden dragon dance and mimicking rowing actions with branches for the past 600 years.

In Houjie’s Qiaotou Village, they’ve been celebrating with a wooden dragon dance and mimicking rowing actions with branches for the past 600 years.

Naturally, it’s always a great honor for a village to win a race, or for team members to represent their village. During the fourth and fifth month, the subject of dragon boat festival is at the core of everyone’s gossip and arrangements. From selecting skillful oarsmen, ordering a new boat, to training and preparing all the ceremonies. The entire village is participating. Apparently, ceremony is the key to spiritual achievement. When a new boat touches water, the first time of training, before and after a race—there are sophisticated rules and rituals to follow, convincing people that they are blessed and everything will be fine.

In the old times, boats were made of pinewood. It’s heavy and so durable that one boat can serve over three decades. They can be in storage under water when not in use. Nowadays, to achieve precision and speed, the material is replaced by China fir and even glass fiber. Zhongtang Town is the hometown of dragon boat making. A dozen workshops mark the riverside, producing boats for Dongguan, Hong Kong and as far as Fujian Province.

However, in recent years, these dragon boat craftsmen experienced a devastating slump because, on one hand, races are not as popular as before; second, the market no longer demands the traditional kind of dragon boats. As a result, most of the shops closed, only two or three are still struggling. A son of the national inheritor of dragon boat making, Feng Huainü, switched his career to sell apartments. The other son decided to make one-meter-long mini dragon boats, which was frowned upon by his father.

Fortunately, this year, the government is surprisingly supportive, not only generally providing all the necessary funds, but also making use of different government and non-government platforms and channels to promote this tradition. On May 12, a disappearing ceremony—digging up a 36-year-old pinewood dragon boat which had been buried deep down in the riverbed since 2002—was revived in Wanjiang’s Jiaolian community. Meanwhile, a grand “dragon boat month” opening ceremony was held with a market highlighting Dongguan’s cultural heritage. Not to mention Jin Ao’s new pier area which has been under construction for several months, designed specifically for the dragon boat spectacle. Be sure not to miss this year’s dragon boat scenes in June!