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Hey Mama, What is the Dragon Boat Festival?

Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life

Help your Kids Learn the Customs and History of this Exciting Holiday

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the oldest holidays celebrated in China, and today the races are a must-attend event, drawing crowds from virtually all walks of life.  A combination of spectacle and sportsmanship, with a heavy dose of Chinese history and folklore mixed in, it is a big hit with the kids with all its noise and pageantry.

What: The name for the festival in China was originally the Upright Sun Festival but this was changed by foreigners to the aptly-named Dragon Boat Festival for its lively dragon boat races, held particularly in the southern provinces, Hong Kong and Macau where there are many rivers and lakes. Today it is officially known in Chinese as the Duan Wu festival, and known locally by its Cantonese name Tuen Ng.  The exciting races that are the centerpiece of the festivities were historically competitions held between different clans and villages.

When: The Dragon Boat Festival is a lunar holiday, occurring on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. While the main races will be held on Tuen Ng Festival day (Saturday, 23 June this year), there actually are local races all around Hong Kong from May – July. Check out the local dragon boat racing schedule here .

The Story Behind the Holiday: A number of theories exist about the origins of this holiday and there are a several folk traditions and myths connected to its observance. The most common is that it commemorates the death of a popular Chinese national hero, Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Mi Lo River over 2,000 years ago to protest corrupt rulers. Legend says that as townspeople attempted to rescue him, they beat drums to scare fish away and threw dumplings into the sea to keep the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. Today, the festival’s distinctive dragon boat races are a re-enactment of the frantic (and vain) attempts of the fishermen who rowed out to save him.

While today the races are the main spectacle, there are many cultural rituals with deep religious heritage that are still practiced today by the local fishing communities. In particular, there are two important ceremonies that must be performed for the boats: first they have to be blessed and “awakened” before the races and then after the races each boat is put to “rest” until the next year’s festival.

Fun Things to do to Celebrate: We all know the real highlight of the festival is the dragon boats racing – a fun, exciting spectacle with a carnival-like atmosphere that is a big hit with the kids with its noisy drums and gongs and colourful pageantry. The boats are positively huge (measuring more than 10m) and have elaborately carved and painted ‘dragon’ heads and tails.  Teams of 20+ paddlers race to beat of heavy drums and gongs, while men standing at the bow set off firecrackers and toss rice into the water as they make believe they are looking for Qu Yuan.

Head out to watch the races, eat dumplings and cheer on your favorite team – or favourite costume, as like many sports in this town, team costumes are encouraged with prizes.

The international race at Stanley taking place on Saturday, June 23 is perhaps the most popular, but races actually take place at several locations around Hong Kong, including Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun (Castle Peak Bay), Cheung Chau, Tai Po, Aberdeen, Discovery Bay, and Tai O on Lantau Island.

Get the full schedule of all the local races in Hong Kong here .

If you head to the Stanley event, download the race’s iPhone app which gives results and race-day info. And don’t forget to pack your swimsuits so you can enjoy the so-called “dragon boat swim” on the main Stanley beach.

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