As COVID retreats, dragon boat tradition back in south China

GUANGZHOU, China (AP) — The dragon boat tradition returned in parts of China on Friday for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, as restrictions are lifted along with a major drop in COVID-19 cases.

The historic Lychee Bay scenic area in the southern Chinese manufacturing hub of Guangzhou staged boat displays and other scaled-back celebrations to mark the holiday commemorating the death more than 2,200 years ago of revered poet and government minister Qu Yuan.

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

Along with the displays and traditional boat races — featuring teams of up to a dozen or more paddlers but which were not held in Guangzhou this year due to pandemic measures — the holiday is marked by community gatherings and the enthusiastic consumption of steamed rice dumplings cooked with meat, peanuts and other ingredients and wrapped in green leaves bound with string.

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

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

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

“I feel particularly excited and happy,” said He, who was among the spectators watching the crews from Pantang village paddle the carefully-decorated boats as long as 38 meters (125 feet).

Wang Haoran, a tourist from Inner Mongolia in China’s far north, said he’d only ever experienced the festival through books and television.

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

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

The dragon boat tradition dates back 500 years in Pantang, and residents a century ago began displaying the boats as works of folk art and craftmanship, said Liu Yongzhou, head of the dragon boat association from one of the village’s districts.

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

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

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

Liu called the event an unforgettable experience.

“This year, to meet the requirements of epidemic prevention, we minimized the event,” he said. “But it’s OK — we were able to hold this event under such strict conditions.”


Associated Press video producer Caroline Chen contributed to this report.


This story corrects the attribution of the final quote and the spelling of Pantang village.