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Dragon on the Water

Generations ride the waves on dragon boats

10·14·2016

Dragon on the Water

Generations ride the waves on dragon boats

10·14·2016

In Sanshui (三水), a district of Foshan City in Guangdong Province, there lives a family with the surname Guan. The patriarch, Guan Qunsu, 65, is a second generation boat craftsman; his father, Guan Dui, used to work at the local shipyard but started his own factory after he retired. Guan Qunsu joined his father, and not long after, Guan Qunsu’s twin sons joined the family business, and they decided to name it “Guan Yongqiang Factory” after his youngest son. Together, the three generations have been running the family boat factory for more than 15 years.

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Guan Qunsu assembles some of the smaller parts for the boat’s eventual construction

Dragon boat racing is relatively popular in this area of China, so the demand for large boats is growing. Still, it’s hard work, and the profits are slim. Small dragon boats can hold about five people, but the large racing boats can hold 40 to 80 rowers. The larger the boat is, the more complicated the manufacturing process can be. The largest dragon boat the Guan family ever made was 46.9 meters and required 90 rowers. The Guan family business is a big name in local dragon boat circles, known for their careful workmanship.

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Carving is the first step in making the distinctive dragon figurehead

With the convenient waterways in Guangdong Province, boats used to be a major form of transportation, and the dragon decoration was meant to show a noble heritage. The launching of a dragon boat involved tremendous care; there would be a worship ceremony, prayers at ancestral temples, and even the dragons themselves would be invited to attend. The modern customs are somewhat simpler—usually involving sacrifices (usually a chicken or pork), incense burning, and sometimes the sacrifice of a rooster that has its blood then sprinkled from bow to stern in an earnest prayer for safety.

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Guan Yongqiang cuts long strips of timber

Today, most people think of dragon boat races only in conjunction with the Dragon Boat Festival, but in South China, the races are held on many occasions, such as Labor Day and National Day—often between different villages in a spirit neighborly competition.

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While joinery holds the bulk of the boat together, glue is also used in the production process

Dragon boat culture is indelibly etched on some, a cultural staple, a pastime, and an art form. As Guan Qunsu puts it, “As long as I still have strength, I will carry on making dragon boats.”

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Detail is carefully added to the final carved figurehead

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The new dragon boat owners carry their purchase to the riverside

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After the boat is put in the water, the figurehead is fixed to the bow, then it is turned upright

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The new onwers work together to put one side of the boat into water first and then roll it upright

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An elder from the village hosts the worship ceremony, lighting incense and offering sacrifices to pray for safety and peace


“Dragon on the Water” is a story from our newest issue, “Gender Equality”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.