Gods of the River

gotr1Paddling Through Dragon Boat Traditions

On March 23, a gloomy, tiled boatyard in coastal Zhongtang Town attracted the attention of a Singaporean documentary crew in production on the making of dragon boats. Initiated by the State Council Information Office in cooperation with the National Geographic Channel, the program introduces the most traditional and modern Chinese manufacturing techniques in making ships, musical instruments and wine.

“Our preliminary investigation showed that the reputation for building dragon boats in Dongguan is well-noted nationwide, plus the city has Mr. Feng, a predecessor in a long line of builders in this cultural heritage. “This is why we have come to Dongguan to shoot the film,” said crew leader Le Min in an interview with Dongguan TV. The film is planned to air globally early next year on National Geographic channels.

Dubbed, in 2006, as the hometown of Dragon Boats, Zhongtang Town has been the Pearl River Delta’s traditional hub for building the watercraft for over 100 years. Currently eight workshops are nested among three waterway villages. Still supplying quality dragon boats to Dongguan and neighboring cities, most of the owners inherited the skills from their fathers and grandfathers. The group of skilled laborers has been listed among the nation’s Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2008, with the official heir Feng Huainü, known simply as Mr. Feng, having carried on the tradition for nearly 70 years.

The non-stop dragon boat making industry is supported by the prosperous dragon boat activities in the towns spreading across the vast network of channels and streams in the Dongjiang River, the east branch of the Pearl River. Villagers paddle the 29-meter-long, half-ton dragon vessels out to the broad river, praying for a year of abundant harvest and showing respect to the river gods.

Nowadays, every year on the first day of the fifth Chinese calendar month (usually June), nearly 20 days of dragon boating fever is kicked off in the artery along Wanjiang for the first races of Dongguan, followed by the other eight towns’ dragon boat activities.

An exciting atmosphere is created by the churning waves and splashing water. Fiery chants for participants, and audience alike, build upon the heart-pounding excitement growing with the drum beats that keep pace on 26 red, black or golden-legged water dragons with synchronized paddle movements. Until the last town, Shijie’s races on the 18th day, water throughout northwest Dongguan waterways is disturbed enthusiastically by sweaty paddlers between every momentous strike. Counted as one of the most conventional, festive and feverish events during the year gives a great deal of honor and pride to villagers who host or participate.

The Dragon Boat Makers of Zhongtang

When dragon boating began over a thousand years ago, townsfolk, it is commonly believed, commemorated banished poet Qu Yuan’s loyalty to his mother state. The artist, in a move similar to Socrates self-fulfilled death penalty, had taken his own life in protest to the country’s invasion, and respect for the elder’s resolve led the people to paddle boats on the river and scatter rice wrapped zongzi dumplings to prevent the fish from dining on his body. Gradually the dragon paddling was kept on and evolved into races.

Presently, the custom focuses on the Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔjié). But beginning as early as three months ahead of the festival, sharp squeals are heard whining from circular saws and traveling across the three villages of Zhongtang Town along the channels from where a dozen or so boat builders bury their heads among timber.

As the younger generations seek opportunities outside of the village, finding successors becomes an increasingly serious problem to many workshops. “The industry will be dying out sooner or later. Young people are all doing something else,” said Huo Wobiao, a Doulang Village dragon boat foreman, whose 500 sq. meter workshop is covered with cedar shavings with fragrances of Guizhou lumber mixing with the dust.

On this day, seven middle-aged craftsmen are scattered on the sides of three 30-meter-long dragon boats. They busied themselves by polishing the hull with smoothing planes, hammering nails through joints, sawing and navigating the logs for the boat’s backbone. With a rusty measurement tool in his hands, Huo, whose surname in decades past was famed for making dragon boats in Doulang, inspects and discusses the stern’s width with his carpenters. Now his crew, unlike times past, consists of middle-aged seasonal workers hired to make only about a dozen boats. Although modern tools have lessened the physical workload dramatically, village youth are far less interested in the tedious sawing and polishing and are more attracted to the diverse job opportunities in the city.

The temporary expedition turned out to be a life-time career without regret. “I was born doing this job. I don’t know how to write, I can’t even write my name,” he said

Five minutes’ drive from Huo’s factory, deep into a narrow, sandy path, lies Mr. Feng’s renowned Dragon Boat Factory, with traditional red Chinese characters emblazoned above the gate. Inheriting the factory and skills from his father, 83-year-old Mr. Feng has been making the crafts since he was 15 years old when his family determined it needed one more contributor instead of a consumer. “My dad earned too little to support the eight brothers and sisters. At that time we borrowed a basket of grain from lenders and ten days later it was increased to two baskets. So I quit school and helped my dad,” recalled Mr. Feng. The temporary expedition turned out to be a life-time career without regret. “I was born doing this job. I don’t know how to write, I can’t even write my name,” he said.

Contrary to Huo’s staffing problem, Feng’s factory is in a different situation. “They are all from my family, no outsiders,” he said wearing a proud expression. So far, Feng’s sons, sons-in-law and grandsons are helping run the boatyard that he built 25 years ago. Too old to participate in physical work now, Feng usually sits in the corner of the workshop, laying an eye on everybody’s work while leisurely drinking tea.

The Prerace Rituals of Wanjiang

As the big day draws closer, new boats are conjured one after another, every two or three days throughout May and June. Villagers from Dongguan towns and regions such as Zengcheng and Panyu arrive at Zhongtang’s workshops to drag their brand-new boats home along the rivers with thundery fire crackers.

This year, the 26 villages from Dongguan’s Wanjiang District were invited to attend the big races with new boats fashioned by the same builder from Mali Village to assure a fair match. On the morning of May 8, five boats from an early batch were waiting for their virgin voyage to Wanjiang and their first round of blessings and festivities. Nearly 100 villagers from the five communities of Wanjiang crammed the small workshop by the water, examining the smooth outer gunwales and the sturdiness of the boat ribs.

The action culminated in the firm insertion of the colorful dragon head. After the soul of the boat slides into place, a series of ceremonies and rituals begin with sacrifices of hell paper, traditional dragon boat cookies and large suckling pigs on red trays and, of course, deity worshipping. Another ritual, dotting the pupils of the protruding eyes on the dragon head with a red brush, is meant to awaken the dragon and energize its qi. Upon the thundering fire crackers, 50 bearers lifted the 29-meter-long dragon boat, and with lightning fast hand-over-hand movements swiftly slid it into the water to be dragged by a motor boat on a nearly two-hour journey to its home in Wanjiang.

At the riverside community center of Wanjiang’s Dafen Village, dozens of villagers stood along the bank admiring the new boat’s first piloting by its experienced dragon boaters. Part of the drinks, cakes, bread and snacks sponsored by local businessmen were passed under the dragon’s mouth to “reward” the boat at the dock. Later a banquet was thrown with tributes including the pig being parted and taken away by all the paddlers and audience. This is considered sharing in the “dragon qi” and is said to drive away evils and bring luck for the year.

The new boat is put away until about half a month before the first race when a new team is selected from the local villagers every year and starts to train daily. The crew is comprised of 56 rowers; one drummer who controls the team’s paddling speed; one director who controls the drummer; and one steersman in the stern.

The first week of the training sections will be focused on building strength and endurance through long-distance paddling, the following ten days are devoted to practicing how to properly use the strength. According to He Ganhui, veteran director with over ten years experience and the secretary of the Dafen village committee of CPC, there are three steps in starting a dragon boat on its path. First take seven full paddles, stretch to the limit in both length and depth. When the boat floats up on its cruising plane, switch to 30 fast and intensive paddles. Then change to regular pace and proceed on. A smooth and powerful beginning creates determined ambiance and significantly contributes to the whole trip.

The director standing by the dragon head, although only appearing in traditional dragon boating, plays a leading and supervising role, and has been requested by the Wanjiang government to be taken by the secretary of the village’s committee of CPC. The director is able to assess every player’s strength and limit so he can decide when to take a full sprint or to take a slack, and give the signal to the drummer. “I know perfectly well how many fast paddles my team can go. I will let them rest, then come to fast again. We practice this again and again in the training so we know what speed we can reach,” said He. Preventing any possible conflict or violence among teams is another mission of the director. Therefore, such a character must have the appeal to command every one and commit such responsibilities. The drummer, however, counts another prominent position in the team by controlling the speed of the boat as well as creating a courageous and aggressive atmosphere for the group and the spectators.

After the soul of the boat slides into place, a series of ceremonies and rituals begin with sacrifices of hell paper, traditional dragon boat cookies and large suckling pigs on red trays and, of course, deity worshipping.

“The key to dragon boating relies on a sense of rigid discipline,” explained 38-year-old enthusiast Hu Shujia who has been attending competitions since he was 16. “For a sport involving 60 players, acting in a unit is a must.” For this reason, old players are preferred in the team for better discipline although their strength might be inferior to younger athletes. They are respected in the dragon boat community and can participate into their 50s if they are strong enough. “I am deeply fond of dragon boats. Being part of it makes me proud. I play every year no matter how busy I am and how hard it is, I’m addicted to it,” Hu grinned.

The First Race of the Season

In the morning of June 8, 26 dragon boats loaded with villagers’ blessings will sail across Wanjiang’s winding channels to attend the annual massive dragon boat tourna- ment along the Dongjiang River. It is an opportunity to show the spirit of their hometown and win glory for the village in front of all the Dongguan people.

Upon departure, rituals for worshipping the gods of the river will be performed, followed by the so-called “grab the green” ceremony in the Dafen village. “A handful of lychee branches and grains are placed in the middle of the river,” said He. “The boat slowly approaches—no drum, no gong, no voices. When it reaches the leaves, the director suddenly grabs and places them in the dragon’s mouth. At the same time, the drum beat begins and the boat soars into full speed, no turning back.”

The scene of Wanjiang’s dragon boat races have been described in historical records all the way back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties four hundred years ago. After a suspension during the 1960s and 1970s due to the Cultural Revolution, contests have been held almost every year since the 1980s. Proud to be what they call the “first scene of Dongguan dragon boating” because they are the always the earliest race of the season, Wanjiang people have formed a special tie to the dragon boat and the festival. And they feel that they do more than just root for their team. If one family member takes part in the race, the family and villagers share in their support. “It’s is very important for us that our wives make soup with meat instead of vegetables when we are training and require more nutrition,” said Hu.

Proud to be what they call the “first scene of Dongguan dragon boating” because they are the always the earliest race of the season, Wanjiang people have formed a special tie to the dragon boat and the festival.

The distance in the races has been modified over the decades to shorter and straighter routes. According to the last generation’s contestants such as He, they used to paddle for two to three hours across towns and regions involving lots of turning and winding. There were enough dangerous stories about wreckage when the boat tried to turn. Now the time has been cut to less than seven minutes in a 1,800 kilometer sprint. The reason behind is linked to safety and the younger athletes, who unlike the older generations who were mostly physical laborers with good endurance, are white collar and cannot maintain a three hour journey.

With a long history in dragon boat races, Dongguan has nurtured quite a few champions in the international competitions dating back to the end of last century. In 1994, Dongguan won its first international champion- ship in the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Regatta. During 1997 to 1999, Dongguan, representing China, attended and won first place in dragon boat events in Canada, Malaysia and England.

After the first tournament, races or parades continue on in Wanjiang’s villages and other towns such as Zhongtang, Machong, Hongmei and more. People gather back to their hometown from Shanghai, Beijing and other provinces, watch their team and eat snacks, zongzi and dragon boat rice, a kind of fried rice mixed with meat and vegetables, convenient for people to eat while occasionally going out and watching the races whenever they hear the drums. The festival provides gossip for nearly half a year and ties up the relationships among villagers and villages.