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Dragon Boats commemorate ancient Chinese legend

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Almost anywhere in the world where there are Chinese immigrants and their descendants and admirers, there’s a Chinese dragon boat festival.

The exciting races of dragon-shaped long boats manned by 18 to 22 people paddling furiously is the most exciting part of the Fifth Moon Festival, a traditional Chinese festival noting the fifth day of the fifth moon of the year, according to the book “Dragon Boats: A Celebration,” by Pat Barker.

The tradition of the dragon boat races commemorates the 3,000-year-old story of Qu Yuan, according to the New York festival’s Web site.

Qu Yuan, a high-level government official in the kingdom of Chu — now the present-day Chinese provinces of Hunan and Hubei — is believed to have committed suicide by drowning himself in a river. Qu was respected for wisdom and financial and diplomatic skills, but his career took a downturn when an evil, corrupt prince spread negative rumors about him, leading to his disgrace and dismissal.

Depressed that power in his country was now held by dishonorable officials, Qu held on to the large rock he threw into the Mi Lo river on the fifth day of the fifth moon. Fishermen in their boats rushed to save him, but he drowned and his body was never found.

As for the Chu kingdom, it went downhill after Qu’s death, according to tradition. Corruption led to a decline, which resulted in the land being conquered — a lesson that resonants for each generation, according to Baker’s book.

The dragon boat races symbolize the frantic efforts of the local people to rescue Qu, according to the New York festival’s Web site.

A second part of Qu Yuan’s legend is that the residents of Chu showed their respect for the dead leader by throwing rice into the river to feed his ghost, according to Baker’s book.

Traditionally, the wooden boats in dragon boat races were from 50 to 100 feet long with a dragon head at the bow and a dragon tail at the stern. The boat hull was often decorated with red, green and blue scales.

Modern boats are 40 feet long, weigh about 2,000 pounds and are regulated for international race standards by the International Dragon Boat Federation, according to the New York festival’s Web site.

Before racing, crews will set off firecrackers and throw rice in the water in honor of the tradition of seeking the long-lost Qu Yuan.

While at the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, look for a special dumpling called Zongzi. This glutinous rice pudding is eaten to symbolize the rice offerings to Qu Yuan. Among its ingredients are beans, lotus seeds, chestnuts, pork fat and the golden yolk of a salted duck egg, with the mass wrapped with bamboo leaves, bounded with a sort of raffia and boiled in salt water for hours.

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