Traditional Rites associated with Dragon Boat Racing

Traditional Rites associated with Dragon Boat Racing

The Dragon Boat Festival is associated internationally with fun, excitement, camaraderie and sportsmanship. Less well known are the rituals associated with dragon boat racing, which has a deep cultural heritage and springs from religious beliefs.

In Hong Kong today, it is the only the fisher folk of the territory who observe these rituals in a religious context. Although the procedures followed by different fishing communities vary in detail, they all reflect a deep reverence for the dragon boats.

There are basically two important ceremonies that must be performed for the boats. They have to be blessed and "awakened" before the races and then properly induced to "rest" afterwards.

Four days before the Festival, the dragon boats are taken out of the storage yard and the dragon's head and tail are attached. A benediction ritual, done with great pomp and ceremony, follows and involves the burning of paper bills in front of the boats, the making of offerings and the chanting of prayers to heavenly gods.

This ritual serves to ward off evil and to sanctify and bless the boats. In addition, it is supposed to make the dragon boats strong and fierce and therefore fit to compete in the exciting races.

When this has been done, each dragon boat is paddled out to sea, on a course perpendicular to a nearby temple, then back to the temple with the drummer beating the drum. This procedure is repeated three times. Very similar to lion dancing, this triple back and forth movement symbolizes bowing to the Deities and/or the honorary guests.

"Life" is given to a newly built dragon boat at a ceremony performed by a Taoist priest a few days before the actual festival. Holding a bell and a sword in his hands, the priest stabs the words into the mantras, a paper bill with "magic" words written on it while also chanting some mantras. He then touches the dragonhead, tail and drum with the sword, after which paper money is burnt and "magic" sand is sprinkled on the dragonhead. A community leader is then invited to dot the eyes of the dragon and, afterwards, its eyes will be drawn in red paint.

When the races are over, the dragonhead, tail and drum are removed from each boat and stored either in a temple or in another place agreed upon by the community. Incense is burnt to thank the heavenly gods.

Meanwhile, the body of the dragon boat itself is usually either covered with sand along the shore near a temple or put on appropriate racks and covered with roof-shaped tin-foil covers. [Boats for the Stanley events used to be put on a sand beach near Ma Hang Village, but now rest in front of the boathouse of the HK Sea School.] By performing these basic procedures, the dragon boats are considered to be at rest until the next Tuen Ng Festival when the whole cycle of ceremonial rites will be repeated.

[Text above adapted from publication of HK International Dragon boat Festival '95]