As COVID recedes, dragon boat tradition returns to southern China

GUANGZHOU, China — The tradition of dragon boats returned to parts of China on Friday for the first time since the pandemic hit in late 2019, as restrictions are lifted with a significant drop in COVID-19 cases.

The Lychee Bay Historic Scenic Area in the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou in southern China held boat exhibitions and other scaled-down celebrations to mark the holiday commemorating the death there are over 2,200 years old, by revered poet and government minister Qu Yuan.

Restrictions on the duration of events and the size of crowds remained in place but did little to dampen the mood.

As well as the traditional boat shows and races – featuring teams of a dozen or more paddlers but which have not taken place this year due to pandemic measures – the holiday is marked by community gatherings and drinking enthusiastic about steamed rice dumplings cooked with meat, peanuts and other ingredients and wrapped in green leaves tied with twine.

China recorded just 74 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and restrictions were eased in cities like Shanghai, which had been under strict lockdown for more than two months.

As travel restrictions, testing requirements, quarantines and mask mandates remain, the country is gradually emerging from its hardline “zero-COVID” policy that has strangled the national economy and severely restricted global supply chains .

Guangzhou native June He said it was a relief to finally be able to enjoy the festival again after the previous two years’ cancellations.

“I feel especially excited and happy,” said He, who was among the spectators watching the crews from Panting Village compete in the carefully decorated 38-meter (125-foot) long boats.

Wang Haoran, a tourist from Inner Mongolia in far north China, said he only learned about the festival through books and television.

“I couldn’t get a sense of the magnificence of the event,” Wang said.

The tradition of dragon boats dates back 500 years, and a century ago locals began displaying the boats as works of folk art and crafts.

The return of dragon boat festivities has also thrilled small businesses in the area.

“It’s good for various parties, including tourists. There will be lively scenes here again,” said Ji Tuhui, owner of a small bakery selling traditional Cantonese pastries.

While business has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, Friday’s dragon boat performance attracted tourists and their spending money, Ji said.

“It’s an unforgettable experience. But it’s okay. We were able to organize this event under such strict conditions,” he said.


This story has been corrected to show that the festival featured boat shows, not races.

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