Imperial Racing

June 1st. The beginning of the Great British summer is surely here, with the harbourside covered in people enjoying the rare appearance of the sun. Those boats – ah, of course, classic British rowers, surely? But why all the costumes? And why does that boat look like… a dragon?

The last few days have marked China’s Dragon Boat Festival across the world, known as Duanwu in Chinese (and the rip-off Korean Dano and Vietnamese Tet Doan Ngo). Despite the simple sounding name (the festival of boats which look like dragons?), the festival itself isn’t really about the dragons, or the boats. The stories seem to say that the festival originated from the suicide of a poet in the third century BCE.

Qu Yuan, who left the Chu capital to live in the countryside (the world’s first moody artiste?) and wrote what’s considered some of the best Chinese poetry ever written. But at the news that his old home had fallen to the army of the Qin (Dynasty Number One… lots more coming soon!), he drowned himself in a river. The locals tried to save him by boating down the river, and then threw rice dumplings on him (don’t ask…!) to try and stop fish eating his remains. There still seems to be no sign of dragons – this was tacked on afterwards, a secondary to the real meaning of the festival – the special rice dumplings saved for this time of year.


Despite the distinct lack of dragons in the original story, the modern celebrations have more than made up for it. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this festival is an Olympic boat race from some of the races in China over the last few days – a dragon boat racer told reporters (in a very serious voice, oblivious to the ornate dragon head behind him) ‘To achieve (this) coordinated strength, every person has to concentrate on every paddle stroke every day.” More dumplings required.

Things I’ve learned this week:

  • Dragon Boat Festival isn’t about dragons, or boats. It’s all about the dumplings.
  • It’s also about this poet guy and some fish who didn’t like dumplings. Did I mention dumplings?
  • It’s a serious sport. Emphasised by the totally realistic, very threatening, err, dragon heads.

If you enjoyed this, check out the related The Butterfly Lovers, or the top few posts of this last week: Electric Shadows or Coffee – let’s Chinese-ify this. Chinese French (November) is the archive pick for this week – check back for more next week!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, make sure to share with your friends below, or subscribe on the homepage to be notified when Post 32: ‘An Exam for Your Life’ is published in the week beginning June 5, 2017.


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