by Graham Thompson, Website Editor, 21 June 2012
The weekend of 22-24 June is the Dragon Boat holiday in China, and there are many events to celebrate this important festival. It may be particularly colourful as 2012 is, of course, the Year of the Dragon. There were some talks about the festival at the Glasgow Confucius Institute, and, indeed, some actual dragon boat racing at Leith in Edinburgh, on Saturday 23 June.
However, we thought it might be of interest to readers to hear how the festival was celebrated back in the 1930s, courtesy of an article from the magazine China Journal, published in Shanghai between 1923 and 1941. The following text extracts and photos come from the issue of July 1937, pages 8-10, by journalist Julius Eigner.
"As with the New Year and the Harvest Moon Festivals, the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the three settlement days of the Chinese year ; and like them, it provides a longed-for occasion for merry-making and feasting.
"Every year on the 5th Day of the 5th Moon (this year  on June 12), triangular rice cakes, filled with sugar and candied fruit, are eaten in all Chinese homes. In addition salted duck's eggs and hisang kuang wine on the tables of all those who can afford the latter as an antidote against future sicknesses.
"The festivities staged on this day vary, of course, according to the local customs of the country. The main events of the day, the Dragon Boat Race and the setting afloat of lanterns as guiding lights to the "happy ghosts", is confined, generally speaking to the southern part of China, where there is an abundance of rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, and where life on the water plays a much more prominent part than in the north.
In North China, on the other hand, various sports on land used to mark the festival. People were, and still are, accustomed to go picknicking in large parties to the natural beauty spots in the vicinity of the big cities. Children set out small boats in which lighted candles are stuck, watching them float down the river until they disappear in the distance.
The photos below from China Journal, July 1937, show some dragon boats in Shanghai in that year. Click on each photo to expand.
"In addition there used to be many theatrical troupes, which, touring the country all the year round, crowded near the big cities at this time and performed for the delectation of the high-spirited holiday throngs. There were also big groups of stilt walkers, dancers of all sorts, tight-rope walkers, conjurers, acrobats, storytellers, musicians and the like. To-day, while some of these ancient traditions are still alive, the most colourful and spectacular parts of this pageant have died out.
"The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is handed down in a legend which dates from a time long before Christ. Popular tradition has it that this festival commemorates the death of a high-minded statesman and philosopher. The name of this man was Chu Yuan, a Minister in the State of Chu of no mean capability. He lived in the feudal hierarchy of the third century BC and was despondently dissatisfied with the corrupt state of affairs. He was one of those rare figures, characterised by honesty, integrity and a high sense of responsibility, who occasionally make their appearance even in times of rebellion and corruption. Yet the Prince he was advising turned a deaf ear to his admonitions. In accordance with the philosophy of the age he decided that the only course open to him was to commit suicide. After having written what may be termed his political testament, he threw himself into the Mi-Lo river in Hunan province. Boatmen who were out on the river at the time busy with their fishing gear flocked to the scene, as he was well beloved by the population, and tried to save him. Their efforts, however, were in vain.
Ever since, so the story runs, people have commemorated the heroic death of Chu Yuan every year by going out in boats and dropping tseng-tze, the above mentioned glutinous rice cakes stuffed with sugar and fruit, into the water, so that his spirit may not hunt in vain for his food...."
"...the main duty or rite of the day is the collecting of debts. The merry chase after the unwilling debtors begins two days before the holiday and comes to and end with the dawn of the festive day itself..."
"Unfortunately, the climax of the festival, namely the Dragon Boat Races, is not much in evidence these days [i.e. in 1937]. There are some districts, especially in the southern part of China, where the spirit of carnival demands the traditional boat race, but they are rare. In the capital itself [i.e. at that time Nanking, now Nanjing] the boat race has been prohibited. Shanghai has reached a compromise. The boatman's guild here has rigged out two huge boats in what appears to be all their former splendour, manning them with sturdy crews. But instead of having these two boats compete in a race, they merely content themselves with padding round each other [it is assumed these are the boats seen in the photos]...the venue of the Shanghai Dragon Boat Race is the Pan Sung Garden, a typical Chinese garden with a huge pond, near the Nantao Bund..."
The author of the article would perhaps be glad to hear that dragon boat racing is now a common feature of the modern festivals, especially in Hong Kong and South China, and even in the UK (for many more examples, see here).