Unity, competition and multiculturalism at Copenhagen Dragon Boat Festival

The Copenhagen Post met the Dragon Boat Festival’s organisers, Cultural Counsellor Bin Liang and Chairman of the festival Hui Zhang, to find out why the festival is important in Chinese culture, as well as how it is relevant in a globalized world.

Photo: Copenhagen Dragon Boat Festival

Few traditions still practiced today are as ancient as those in Chinese culture. While in Italy, Britain, Denmark and the US, some holidays go back hundreds of years, in China some festivals have been held for several millennia. 

And this weekend, one such festival is being held in Denmark.

On the 22 and 23 June, the Chinese Dragon Boat Race festival will be held in Copenhagen for the seventh consecutive year. The festival, taking place in the South Harbor, is a part of the Chinese Duanwu, which is one of four major Chinese holidays whose history can be traced back over 2000 years.

The race will pit 32 teams against one another in a competition that closely resembles that of Olympic rowing, with each team trying to get to the finish line the fastest.

As the name implies, this will all be done in traditional Chinese dragon boats. While the boats resemble oversized kayaks, there is a clear difference: the boats are decorated with designs inspired by the dragons of traditional Chinese legends.

It’s just one of many aspects of the festival that takes inspiration from the mythology of China.

While the boat racing is the main attraction of the festival, there will also be several other activities varying from music and culture acts to street food.

There will be 60 stands selling food, not only from China, but from various countries across the world, including the (in)famous Danish kitchen. 

The Copenhagen Post met the Dragon Boat Festival’s organisers, Cultural Counsellor Bin Liang and Chairman of the festival Hui Zhang, to find out why the festival is important in Chinese culture, as well as how it is relevant in a globalized world.

An old tradition in a modern world
Tracing the origins of a two-millenia-old festival is no small feat, says Liang.

There are a variety of legends and mythical origin stories around the holiday.

In one, around 300BC, the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan – a councillor for the king of the Chu state, who was later exiled – was so saddened upon hearing about the invasion and fall of the capital while in exile, that he threw himself into the local river.

In an attempt to locate his body, several fishermen tried to sail onto the river and search for it, with no results. This is where, according to the legend, the tradition of the boat racing comes into play. 

However, after retelling this myth, Liang complements it with some scientific reasoning behind the origin of the festival.

“There are many legends, but according to archaeological research, the experts believe that 2000 years ago, there was a tribe called Baiyue that lived in the area from where the festival stems. They had a custom to worship their ancestors, as well as dragons, during a specific period of time, around the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, which is when the festival is held today. During the festival, they used canoes and small boats to visit their relatives due to the many rivers of the region, and gradually they began to paint the canoes with images of dragons. So that might be the real origin of this festival. But so far there is no certain conclusion, about which one is genuine.”

The festival, however, is not just about the old traditions and values, but also about giving them significance in the modern world.

Liang points out that legends about the origin of the festival all revolve around people who exhibit noble personality traits – a key aspect of today’s festival celebrations.

When talking about the significance and importance of the festival, Liang steers the conversation onto the present day philosophy of the Chinese people.

“I think this festival reflects the moral values and the nature of Chinese people. For example, the festival is also traditionally about health and the prevention of epidemics. It’s a health festival, we call it, and shows the Chinese people’s philosophy about the relationship between human beings and nature, which is an important value of the festival. The dragon boat racing itself is also a part of these values. It is a game that requires unity and teamwork, and I think this shows the Chinese people’s view about cooperation among peoples. So I think these are the important meanings of the festival for Chinese people.”

A global phenomenon
With that in mind, how does the festival fit into a multicultural world? Why do Copenhageners find the ancient holiday intriguing, and what does the festival do to invite people of non-Chinese heritage to join?

Liang says multiculturalism and sharing experiences is one of the festivals biggest assets. 

“One of the significant aspects of celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival abroad is that it is a reflection of the spirit of cultural diversity. In China we say that a single flower does not make a spring. In a garden, you need many kinds of flowers, and when they blossom then there will be a real spring. For this purpose, I think for our globe, for our world, we also need the diversity of culture. When we celebrate the Chinese festivals in other countries we bring this kind of culture to another group of people from different countries. Perhaps, this can lead to an understanding between them. I have noticed that this dragon boat race has been held in Europe for many years, in countries like Germany, UK, Czechia and even Hungary. Many countries have even established their own clubs, with not only Chinese people, but also local people participating. So there is a very sound foundation for celebrating this kind of cultural activity in Europe. ”

As Liang describes how Europeans have taken a shine to the Dragon Boat Festival, the conversation turns to how Chinese expats living abroad react to their home country’s festivals being celebrated in European cities.

Liang could not imagine anything but positive reactions from the people of Chinese heritage living in Denmark. However he found the change in dynamics between the Chinese and the Danish communities a more interesting effect.

“Originally it was a festival celebrated by the Chinese people. When they celebrate this festival, they will feel their traditions, their culture and the bond between the Chinese culture and the culture of the country where they reside. So I think it is very important for them. When a foreign culture is observed or even celebrated in another country, it is very important for not only the people from that background, but also for other people with a different cultural backgrounds, to participate. In that way people can understand each other better through culture. For example in Denmark, we have a Chinese community. The Danes may have some difficulties understanding the Chinese culture, but when you have these kinds of cultural programs and activities, the local Danish people may gain a deeper understanding of the community. As I have explained, the holiday has values or philosophy that are grounded in the Chinese people. So by observing this festival, others can understand what kind of people are living amongst them. So we hope that through this kind of exchange, the Chinese can live harmoniously with Danish people together and together make this country more beautiful.”

A festival for the whole family

In that sense, the Copenhagen Dragon Boat Festival nurtures Chinese culture abroad by allowing new and old participants to build a personal bond with the traditions.

Danes have their own versions, of course. In Denmark, the ‘hygge’ of Christmas time, or traditional Easter lunches are expressions of culture that everyone can have their own relationship with.

How then, does the Chinese view the Duanwu? 

The first one to answer this question was Chairman of the Dragon Boat Festival, Hui Zhang:

“The best way to put it, is by observing the difference between the Dragon Boat Festival and The Chinese New Year. At the Chinese New Year, one will normally see the yearly performance with the family, the parents will cook the food and the children will eat.

But at the Dragon Boat Festival all people can actively engage in the celebration. So in that way, it is a festival that sparks joy in all kinds of people, both old and young. Also, it is held in the midsummer, during the loveliest weather, which is a plus. I have so many children and they’re always looking forward to the Dragon Boat race. It is a very big holiday.”

Liang chimed in during this conversation with his own memories and feelings about the festival: 

“I didn’t participate in the last six festivals that were held in Denmark, as I arrived here at the end of July last year. By then, it was already finished when I got here. So my favorite memory from this year’s festival is the anticipation of the celebration. However, as I mentioned earlier, this festival is also a health and epidemic prevention festival. During  the festival, every household will decorate their door with herbs. And this is not only for the decoration, but also because our ancestors believed that it was a way to prevent the spread of diseases. So I remember my parents would do the same thing during that period of time, and put herbs into the lintel of the doors.They would also use realgar to brew wine, which we would drink, and the parents would put some of this realgar on the forehead of the children, to prevent diseases. So in that atmosphere, you will feel anticipation for a very good future. There will be no diseases, no epidemics and only very good days to come. This is my memory about this festival. “

The program of the festival can be found on Dragonboat.dk, where it is also possible to view the competing teams.

For other enquiries, email info@dragonboat.dk.

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