Taiwan’s Dragon Boat Racing Adapts to Modern Times with Night Spectacles

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In the heart of Taiwan, a millennia-old tradition of dragon boat racing within the expansive Chinese diaspora finds itself adapting to contemporary times. It is in the central regions of the enigmatic island country where this shift is most perceptible, where the races have transitioned from sweltering midday affairs to cool, breezy evening spectacles.

As dusk settles, the dragon boats, adorned in captivating LED lights that run the lengths of the vessels, come alive on the water. The beating of a drummer echoes in rhythm from the bow of each boat, beneath which sits an intricately carved dragon’s head. The stern is occupied by a navigator, and a tail emerges to complete the representation of the mythical creature, widely considered in Chinese tradition as a symbol of prosperity and good luck.

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Despite the fierce competition, it remains mainly a sport for the considerably enthusiastic amateurs. Members of crews are often neighbors and coworkers, such as 31-year-old sales executive Emily Lin of Changhua county. She finds the training sessions held in a local junior high school to be a brilliant medium for strengthening friendships beyond the confines of workplaces. “The dragon boat race offers a wonderful opportunity for us to gather, engage and participate,” shared Lin, whose excitement was palpable following the qualifiers that concluded the previous evening.

Chen Ta-tzung, a 28-year old machinery maintenance specialist, reveled in the transition to nocturnal racing due to the intense sunlight during the day that reflects off the river, which can leave one feeling ill. “The heat is relentless,” mused Chen, “but the night brings reprieve.” Pausing, he added, “We often miss out on the scenic beauty while focusing on the race. But the return journey, that’s when we experience the mesmerizing sights.”

This year’s races are even more significant as they mark the return of the sport after a three-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A dragon boat can accommodate between 10 and 20 rowers depending on its size. The festival typically occurs at the beginning of June, coinciding with the summer solstice according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

Growth in the sport’s popularity in recent decades worldwide has led to standardization of rules and equipment. From the size of the paddles to maintaining a consistent drum beat, which serves a similar purpose to a coxswain in college and Olympic rowing, each aspect is meticulously governed.

The nocturnality of the races brings a refreshing novelty for the rowers, according to Huang Yi-kai, a 21-year old coach for standup paddleboard rowers. “Rowers become far more engrossed in the moment,” Yi-kai noted, “It infuses the experience with a refreshing dynamism.”

Dragon boat races also commence in Hong Kong, Macao, and mainland China, although these events aren’t without risk. The dire lack of safety standards has occasionally resulted in fatal accidents, including one where a person lost their life when a dragon boat flipped over in the southwestern city of Chongqing.

Meanwhile, a competition held in eastern Beijing embraced the cultural significance of the event. Shi Shulei, a participant, saw the event as an appreciation of traditional Chinese culture, devoid of commercial or foreign influences. “We often forget about our traditional festivals amid the many events popularized by merchants and other countries,” he opined, “this event, in its celebration of our heritage, should be promoted more widely.”

In Hong Kong, dragon boat racing promotes unity and cooperation amid political turmoil and restricted civil liberties. Andy Ng, a local team coach, emphasized, “Dragon boat is a team sport where we share a common spirit and strive towards a singular objective, being the fastest to the finish point. It is a shared joy, a shared workout.”

The races immortalize the enduring tale of Qu Yuan, a loyal adviser to a Chinese emperor who, about 2,500 years ago, drowned himself in a river after his wise counsel was dismissed. As the month of June unfolds, marking the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, observers honor Yuan by indulging in sticky rice dumplings, symbolizing the rice cakes his supporters threw into the river to safeguard his body from fish. Today, as the dragon boats dart across the water under a night sky, the legacy of Qu Yuan lingers, illuminated in the glow of the LED lights.