I love holidays and festivals that feature a strong athletic component. China had a great one today: the Dragon Boat Festival. It’s a huge deal in the southern part of the country. People race up and down rivers in long boats. Some teams train for months. In Hong Kong, it has become a corporate event with many of the giants of finance fielding teams of extremely fit employees.
When I heard the crackle of fireworks this morning, I headed for the Pearl River, about a kilometer from my flat. There were several boats on the river already, but they weren’t racing. They were just being casually paddled up and down the murky waterway. In the boats, a couple guys pounded a drum, some blew whistles, others chanted and a few pyromaniacs tossed strings of firecrackers in the air. As they hit the river, they kept popping on the water’s surface.
As I stood on the riverbank in a big crowd and watched the festivities, I felt the urge to start asking people if they realized how ironic the holiday is. Like Christmas in the West, the occasion’s real meaning has become lost amid all the hoopla. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the spectacle, and I didn’t want to be a festival grouch, so I resisted quizzing people about the event’s history.
The Dragon Boat festival celebrates the suicide of a beloved official named Qu Yuan about 2,000 years ago. Legend has it that Qu Yuan dared to speak truth to power, and he got hammered down for it. He challenged a corrupt government, lost a power struggle and got banished from the kingdom. Inspired by patriotism and a desire to draw attention to the leadership’s wrongs, he jumped into a river and drowned himself. People hopped into boats and paddled frantically to save him but they were too late. So the dragon boat races are essentially a reenactment of the attempt to save Qu Yuan – one of China’s most famous dissidents.
What’s the lesson we need to learn here? How much has China changed since Qu Yuan’s time? Can the government still destroy someone who challenges the Emperor? Yes it can and it does. The irony of this holiday overwhelms me when I start thinking about it. The government shuts down for a day so everyone can celebrate what? The death of a dissident. Just like in Qu Yuan’s time, people still take huge risks and must resort to extreme measures to make themselves heard. There still isn’t much of a marketplace of ideas in China when it comes to politics and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. I guess the Chinalogic is that Qu Yuan really was a good guy and the government really was rotten. Today’s dissidents are troublemakers who are trying to cause disharmony and instability. We must trust the Communist Party on this one…
wafflesandsteel | Filed under: Dragon Boat Festival | 2 Comments »