The Dragon Boat Festival falls on 22 June this year in Hong Kong. But what are dragon boats, and what’s the festival all about? Find out in our fact file!
#1 Duanwu, Tuen Ng and the “Double Fifth”
The Dragon Boat Festival is an annual celebration held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month throughout China and some other parts of the world. Known as Duanwu in Mandarin and Tuen Ng in Cantonese – and sometimes referred to as the “Double Fifth” – it’s a national holiday across China, and marked by dragon boat races in many cities and towns.
#2 The significance of the day
The origins of the Dragon Boat Festival are debated, but one common story surrounds an attempt to save the life of Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet and statesman of the ancient Chu kingdom, in the 3rd century BC. Court officials who were jealous of Qu Yuan’s wisdom falsely accused him of conspiracy, leading to his exile by the king. Qu Yuan later threw himself into the Miluo River, with a heavy stone attached to this chest. The people of Chu scrambled into boats and attempted to rescue the honourable man. When the attempt failed, they banged on drums and threw sticky rice dumplings into the water so fish would be distracted from eating Qu Yuan’s body – hence the dual traditions of dragon boats and zongzi!
It perhaps more simply developed out of reverence for the water dragon, the only mythical creature in the Chinese zodiac, and regarded as a benevolent spirit of bodies of water; lakes, rivers and seas.
#3 About the boats
While dragon boats were traditionally made from teak wood, today they’re usually constructed with modern, light materials such as fibreglass. This makes them much faster and resistant to absorbing water. The boats are approximately 12 metres long.
Along with being made from modern materials, today’s competitive dragon boats have to follow international specifications – for instance, the paddles must have “straight flared edges and circular arced shoulders, based geometrically on an equilateral triangle positioned between the blade face and the neck of the shaft”!
Despite all these advancements, the boats do still have a decorative dragon head attached to the front and a stylised dragon tail at the stern. Dragon scales are painted along the sides.
#4 World’s longest
The Guinness World Record for the longest dragon boat is held by the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia. They constructed a fully operational 87.3m dragon boat (more than seven times the usual length) using traditional timber techniques. That’s around as long as the Statue of Liberty is high! As many as 179 paddlers can fit on board.
#5 Who’s on board?
A dragon boat team of 22 consists of 20 paddlers (in a configuration of 10 pairs). There is also a drummer at the front of the boat and a steerer (also referred to as a sweep, steersperson or helm) at the back, making a total of 22 on a dragon boat team.
The ceremonial figure of the drummer is known as a timekeeper, though in reality it’s usually the front two paddlers who set the speed in a race; the drummer will beat in time with their pace, while also making calls of strategy and encouragement. The steerer guides the direction of the boat by making movements with a long straight oar in the water.
#6 Boat races
The tradition of racing boats shaped like dragons may be 2,500 years old, but the sport’s modern incarnation is 47 years old. It started with the first international races being held here in Hong Kong in 1976, when nine local crews took on a Japanese crew. The International Dragon Boat Federation (IBDF) was formed in 1991, and two other groups have emerged since: the EDBF (European) and ADBF (Asian) Federations. Together, they govern racing in almost 90 countries globally, and there are thought to be tens of millions of paddlers worldwide.
#7 Record holders
China holds the current world record for an open 500 metre race for standard dragon boats. It set the mark on the last day of the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2019, crossing the line in a super swift 1 minute and 47.823 seconds.
#8 Eating zongzi
While boat racing is synonymous with the Tuen Ng Festival, eating zongzi is too! These glutinous rice dumplings feature heavily on the day on account of the aforementioned story of Qu Yuan. And they come in two main varieties: sweet zongzi are stuffed with red bean or lotus paste (or sometimes sweet potato), while the savoury versions have a filling of pork belly. They come wrapped in bamboo leaves. Most hotels and bakeries in Hong Kong will sell zongzi on and around the festival day.
#9 Bad month, bad day!
The fifth day of the fifth month was traditionally considered especially unlucky on the lunar calendar. It was a day when five poisonous creatures would emerge: snakes, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and toads. Rituals were put in place in ancient times to combat these dangers, and it’s likely that much of the colour, noise and vibrancy of the Dragon Boat Festival developed around these methods for eliminating bad luck, poison and disease.
#10 Other races
The Dragon Boat Festival isn’t the only time to see large-scale competitive racing in Hong Kong. In March this year, for example, the annual Intercollegiate Competition was held in Shek Mun, featuring paddling teams from eight different universities. The HKU Dragon Boat Team won the overall championship title.
Where to see the dragon boat races in Hong Kong and Macau around festival time
Event: 2023 Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races
Date: 24-25 June 2023 (Saturday to Sunday)
Venue: Waterfront Podium Garden, Tsim Sha Tsui East, Kowloon
Info: Event website
Event: Sun Life Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships 2023
Date: 22 June
Venue: Stanley Main Beach
Info: Event website
Event: 2023 SJM Macao International Dragon Boat Races
Date: 17, 18 and 22 June
Venue: Nam Van Lake Nautical Centre, Macau
Info: Event website
For a more ritualistic type of dragon boat event on the holiday itself, 22 June, the Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade is well worth a look. Villagers carry statues of gods on small boats around Tai O’s waterways, rowing to four different temples and praying for good luck and health.