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Yang Qiujun is the captain of a dragon boat team that includes three of his sons. Photo: Yang Qiujun

How a Chinese ‘dragon boat family’ bonds at the festival’s most important river

  • The father has been taking part in dragon boat races for 30 years, and founded a team a few years ago
  • Three of his teammates are his sons, who return to their hometown every year to participate in the races

While the Dragon Boat Festival is an important holiday across China, it is particularly special in Milou, the central Chinese city where the myth that founded the celebrations was born.

For Yang Qiujun, 63, a long-time resident of the Hunan province city, the day marks another year as captain of a community boat team and 30 years since he began to compete in the races.
Recently the big race has become more special for Yang because three of his teammates are his sons – Yang Fan, Yang Jie and Yang Jian.

In the days leading up to the big race, the family is easy to find, practising their timing and coordination for the competition along the city’s river.

“It is important to get the most out of your movements, with everyone’s strength directed in one direction,” the Yang senior told his teammates. “Are you confident?” he asked.

“Yes!” everyone replied in unison.

The dragon boat team practices on the river in Milou. Photo: Yang Qiujun

Yang founded the team recently, and he said they have always been among the first to sign up for competitions in the city.

“Rowing dragon boats is a tradition to honour the patriotic poet Qu Yuan,” Yang explained. “We want to pass on our passion for the sport and the culture to the next generation.”

The Dragon Boat Festival celebrates the story of Qu, a Chinese poet and politician during the Warring States period who is said to have drowned in the Miluo River over 2,000 years ago.

According to legend, the people living along the river’s banks were in mourning and rowed around the river searching for his body.

These days, people flock to the river every year to row dragon boats and toss zongzi, a glutinous rice treat wrapped in bamboo leaves, into the water to honour him. Originally the practice of throwing zongzi into the water was meant to feed the fish so they wouldn’t eat his body.

The festival has spread across China, with most cities hosting a Dragon Boat competition in some form.

Yang, as captain, is always full of energy and said he started rowing dragon boats thanks to his father, who introduced him to the sport in 1993. Yang began as a paddler, progressed to a coxswain in charge of steering, then became a drummer controlling the timing, and finally, he is now the captain in charge of the entire race.


Zongzi: A must-try traditional treat for the Chinese dragon boat festival

Zongzi: A must-try traditional treat for the Chinese dragon boat festival

Yang said his experience with dragon boat racing had become an important part of his life, giving him meaning and an avenue to connect with his three grown-up sons.

“The spirit of dragon boats has inspired me to move forward over the years,” Yang said.

Like his father, Yang imbued his three sons with a deep love for the sport as they grew up.

“To us, rowing dragon boats is full of meaning,” said the youngest son Yang Jian. “In the past, it was exciting for us to watch from the sidelines as our father paddled the boat, and as we grew older, we began to row ourselves.”

The son said that the three siblings made a pact with their father in 2015 to continue their family’s tradition of rowing dragon boats and to return to their hometown for the festival every year.

“Our father is getting old, so we have to take on the responsibility of passing on the tradition,” said the oldest brother Yang Fan.

“My father can row, I can row, and my son must be able to row when he grows up.”