Dragon Boat Racing: China's Intangible Cultural Heritage

Rowing Energetically. Racing Dragon Boats Fill the River with their Colors

Dr. Seong-Yong Park 승인 2024.06.16 22:18 의견 0

China is full of rich culture, arising from its vast land and population of 1.4 billion. The dragon boat festival is a traditional celebration of ancient origin, a shining asset of cultural heritage inscribed to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Indeed, as G. R. G. Worcester noted in “The Origin and Observance of the Dragon Boat Festival in China,” the Dragon Boat Festival is probably “the most picturesque of China’s many celebrations.”

Representing a Living Heritage of China

The Dragon Boat Festival, practiced in China and other areas around Southeast Asia, is centered around the dragon boat race. Long, sleek boats shaped like dragons race on the river, creating a vibrant and energetic scene. These impressive dragon boats can be seen dotting the waters on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, or Duanwu, particularly in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. The excitement is palpable, both among the rowers participating in the race and the spectators watching the boats glide through the current.

Duanwu is a designated public holiday in China, allowing more people to partake in the dragon boat festivities. The festival embodies the concept of “shared culture,” acting as a connective link between those living in mainland China and the Chinese diaspora, fostering solidarity among Chinese people worldwide. This highlights the close relationship between ethnic identity and traditional culture. Originally a ritual to ward off ill fortune, Duanwu has evolved into a festive event celebrating good health and community through boat racing and other traditional activities. While the specific customs vary by region, the festival generally includes a memorial ceremony for a hero who suffered a wrongful death, dragon boat races, and the sharing of glutinous rice dumplings and wine.

Loyalty in the Warring States Era—Qu Yuan (屈原) and Wu Zixu (伍子胥)

The origins of the dragon boat race date back to ancient times, with several stories explaining its beginnings. The most famous story is that of Qu Yuan, a scholar and patriotic poet from the Chu state during the Warring States period. Qu Yuan was a prominent official under King Huai, known for his intellect and dedication to his country. However, political enemies plotted against him, leading to his exile. Despite this, Qu Yuan remained loyal to Chu, writing numerous poems expressing his sorrow and frustration. When Chu was defeated by the Qin, Qu Yuan, in despair, drowned himself in the Miluo River. The local people raced out in boats to save him or recover his body, leading to the tradition of dragon boat racing and throwing rice dumplings into the river to distract fish.

Another origin story involves Wu Zixu, a high official in the kingdom of Wu. After falling victim to a conspiracy, Wu Zixu's remains were thrown into the river on Duanwu, leading to the day being commemorated in his honor in Suzhou. These stories, along with the practice of making and eating zongzi, are integral to understanding the cultural significance of the Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi, glutinous rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves, is made and shared during Duanwu to honor these historical figures.

Cultural Significance and Modern Celebrations

These origin stories are crucial for understanding the legacy of folklore in cultural development. The Dragon Boat Festival has popular appeal, surviving across generations and evolving from pre-industrial society to a highly technological culture. It provides symbolic resonance and authority to modern social formations, linking the present with a meaningful past. However, it is important to consider how the festival is practiced today, ensuring that its traditional origins remain remembered and articulated.

Traditional Festival with the Longest History in China

Dragon boat races are a highlight of Duanwu, an essential seasonal division of the year second only to the spring festival. The summer heat brings the risk of epidemics, and the dragon boats are part of rituals to drive out bad luck and illness while praying for peace. Other customs during Duanwu include drinking realgar wine and eating zongzi, practices aimed at protecting loved ones from disease and evil spirits. These customs reflect deeply held cultural values, such as hanging sweet flag and mugwort over doors and giving children incense pouches to drive away evil spirits.

The Dragon Boat Festival, the traditional festival with the longest history in China, draws large crowds each year. Longboats shaped like dragons have twenty rowers who paddle to the beat of drums, unifying the rowers and lifting the mood. While the historical purpose of rowing and sounding drums was to chase away fish from Qu Yuan’s body, today's rowers are driven by passion and focus. The festival ties in with the Chinese tradition of respecting historical heroes while celebrating nature's energy, preserving cultural traditions and hope for peace over 2,500 years.

The Dragon Boat Festival was inscribed on the Representative List under 2003 UNESCO Convention at the fourth meeting of the IGC in Abu Dhabi in 2009. Dragon Festival Day, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar, was proclaimed a national holiday by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 2008. This recognition underscores the festival's importance as a living tradition that bridges China's ancient past with its dynamic present, ensuring its legacy for future generations.

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