Now celebrated worldwide, Dragon Boat Festival’s humble origins date back to southern China over 2,000 years ago. As with all great legends, the facts are largely contested, vary from region to region and come heavily embellished. One of the best-known stories holds that Dragon Boat Festival commemorates celebrated poet and minister, Qu Yuan (343-278 BC).
The story goes that Qu was betrayed by officials, accused of treason and exiled from the kingdom. After wiling away years in exile, Qu threw himself in a river as a form of protest against the corruption of the time. Upon hearing the tragic news, villagers loyal to Qu went in search of his body, splashing their paddles, banging drums and throwing sticky rice balls into the water in an attempt to keep the fish well away from his body. Hence today, dragon boat races and the rice-heavy snack zongzi.
Where to watch the races
They might not be real dragons, but it doesn't make the races any less fiery. This holiday weekend, you can watch Dragon Boat racing in Songjiang and Hongqiao. In Songjiang, they are holding their 10th Dragon Boat Competition with 31 participating teams battling it out on Huating Lake on Monday 18, from 8-10.40am. To get there by metro, take Line 9 to Songjiang Xincheng station (exit 3 or 4), and it's a half-hour walk or 10-minute taxi from there. In Hongqiao, you can see the 8th Workers’ Dragon Boat race at the Huaxiang Greenland on Saturday 16, from 8am-4pm – you can watch the races from the banks at Shenbin South Lu, near Shenkun Lu.
If heading to the races and squeezing in with everyone else is too much like work, celebrate the festival by eating the iconic zongzi. Like mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival (but tastier and not re-gifted as often), this is the traditional snack for Dragon Boat Festival.
While countless regional variations exist, the foundation of these 'sticky rice dumplings' is glutinous rice packed around a savoury or sweet filling like pork belly or red bean, then wrapped with bamboo leaves. Though available all-year-round, in the weeks leading up to the festival you'll see an increase in street stall steamers full of the pyramid-shaped treat, and all the five-star hotels offer ultra-luxe gift baskets. You'll also see stacks of them at any water town in the area.
If you’re looking to get in on the action yourself, The Shanghaied Dragons welcome newcomers and paddlers of any background throughout the year – they're holding a training session for all levels on Saturday 16 June at 8.15am. Entry is 100RMB and registration closes at 2pm on Friday 15 June. Sign up online.
What's on the boat?
Ah! The auspicious dragon. Dragons are obviously popular in Chinese culture, and understandably so: they’re symbolic of power and strength and they’re masters of the water – as well as just about everything else. In dragon boat racing, the dragon’s head is more of a ceremonial adornment, added for festivals. Before the race begins, the dragon’s eyes are dotted with lucky red paint, to symbolise the dragon coming to life.
A key player in the race, the drummer is essentially the pulse, riding in prime position at the front of the boat. He or she overlooks the paddlers and maintains a steady drumbeat to help paddlers keep the pace and stay in sync.
Depending on the size of the boat, the crew is usually made up of ten to 20 paddlers, sitting in two rows, paddling in unison to propel the boat through the water under the watchful eyes of the steersperson and drummer. Not to be confused with rowers, paddlers face forwards and use paddles, not oars, obviously. Paddlers at the front of the boat set the pace, while paddlers at the back are used for strength to keep the speed up, especially in faster waters. And paddlers wouldn't be much without...
Some people say that the paddles are symbolic of the dragon’s claws, wading through the water. Different from oars, paddles are not connected to the boat in any way and are in total control of the paddler.
No surprises here, the steersperson is in charge of steering during the course of the race, using the sweep oar. As the only one who can really see what’s going on outside the boat, it’s also the job of the steersperson to alert the crew to any signs of danger or potential collisions. So no pressure or anything.
Illustrations by Jinna Kaneko