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The Dragon Boat Festival is a centuries old tradition in China. Rooted in ancient water rites and a dramatic river rescue to save the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan, the highlight of the day is the dragon boat race—canoe shaped boats that sail down rivers decorated to look like dragons with a fiery open-mouth head at the bow and a scaly tail at the stern. The festival is customarily set to occur on the Double Fifth—the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, a critical point of the calendar. This time is characterized by the struggle between the dual forces of the yin and yang as the waxing yang reaches a culminating point with the arrival of the summer solstice and the yin principle, symbolizing darkness and dampness, comes fully into play. Held to ensure abundant rainfall in southern China, the celebration took place when the transplantation of young rice plants had been completed and torrential summer rains were about to begin. Drums and gongs punctuate the festivities in the same way that lion dances and firecrackers do for the Chinese New Year. Percussion induces the dragons that reside in the water to battle, and as legend has it, to secure rain for the growing season.

Historically, dragon boats were identified with different clans or guilds. Each boat had its own guardian deity, special banners, and different uniforms designed to coordinate with the color scheme painted on the dragon head, scales, and tail of each group’s dragon boat. Rival teams tried to outwit one another during the race. If a boat didn’t rise to the challenge of another, it was given the derogatory epithet of “coward boat” (quechuan).


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