Dragon Boat Song | Foshan ICH • Charming Lingnan
Foshan China 2023-01-28 09:21

As one of the important origins of Lingnan culture, Foshan has many cultural symbols. The intangible cultural heritages in Foshan like the famous Cantonese opera, paper cutting, wood engraving pictures, Canton embroidery still shine brightly with the preservation of generations of inheritors after so many years.

From this January, Foshan News Network will present a new series of Foshan ICH • Charming Lingnan. Foshan national intangible cultural heritages will be introduced to people all over the world through pictures and English descriptions, displaying the charm of traditional Foshan culture.


The Dragon Boat Song is a folk rap art, which is based on Shunde tune and popular in the Pearl River Delta.

This folk art has been existing for more than 260 years. It is said that during Qian Long period, a man from Longjiang, Shunde created this kind of song. He was born in a poor family and failed in the examination. By learning some tunes from Cantonese opera and combining it with other folk operas, he created dragon boat songs and gave performance in different places to make a living.

Before the new China was founded, Shunde built a dragon boat rap group of 40 people to perform for a living in different areas. That group dissolved in 1954 and then artists gave performance on their own. By the 1960s, no more new works has been created except for “Daojuan Zhulian”, a work of famous Cantonese opera artist Wen Juefei. During the Cultural Revolution, dragon boat art was once forbidden. In 2006, dragon boat song was listed in the first batch of national intangible cultural heritage.

Photo/Foshan Intangible Cultural Heritage Database

When giving a performance, the artist often holds a long stick which is decorated with a small carved wooden dragon boat, with small gongs and drums, hanging in the chest. He will sing in rhythm with these gongs and drums. The sound is short but high, which is humorous and infectious. The content of dragon boat rap includes fairy tales, folk tales, news and so on. As few of folk artists were literate and most dragon boat songs were inherited by oral teaching, few songs have been left.

Photo/Foshan Intangible Cultural Heritage Database

In the past: artists earned lots of money by giving performances

When Chen Zhenqiu was young, many dragon boat song artists took giving performances as a means of living. People invited artists to perform in tea houses, temples and celebrations, because they liked hearing stories in the songs and dragon boat songs could foil the festive atmosphere well. In the afternoon or evening, people enjoyed a cup of tea or desserts while listening dragon boat song in a tea house. Every one paid 5 cents but children could listen for free.

Photo/Foshan Intangible Cultural Heritage Database

From the first day to the seventh day of the first lunar month, dragon boat song was popular. Artists could receive a substantial payoff during that time. On the first day, artists sang in front of people’s houses and sent good wishes to them. After listened to these songs, the house holder repaid the artist with a red packet. Except for red packets, people also gave them some snacks like “Jiandui”(a fried round flat cake) and rice cake.

Learning: no regular teachers

Few of dragon boat song artists taught people this folk art. If someone wants to study from a teacher, the teacher will not teach him. Thus, Chen Zhenqiu tried to get in touch with them by all means. “I not only listened to the artist carefully, but also helped him to give performances.” he said. For example, “dragon boat Ning” had sang songs in Longtan village for a long time and been considered as the best. In some tea houses, the owner helped the artist to collect performance fee but some owners did not do this for the artist. Thus the artist stopped to collect money when giving a performance. “You should help him to collect money at this time,” Chen Zhenqiu said.

“I am local people and everyone knows me. If I ask them to pay money, they won’t refuse,” Chen Zhenqiu introduced that in order to learn dragon boat rap, he established a relationship with “dragon boat Ning” by helping him collect performance fee and giving him some desserts. Besides, Chen Zhenqiu also made friends with other artists. “Although Wu Yuchou and You Xueyao are only two or three years older than me, I had learned from them.”

Though Chen Zhenqiu got on well with those artists, they did not teach him skills because most of them were illiterate. “They can sing to you, but cannot write to you.” When the artist sang, Chen Zhenqiu had to listen carefully. When he was young, he had studied in a private school for some time and had interest in poetry. Thus, he learned dragon boat song quickly as it had similarities with poetry.

Gradually, Chen Zhenqiu has been recognized by the society. When holding celebrations, people invited him to give performance. “If someone encourages me, I will sing for him.” His skills became better and better and more and more people got to know him.


Photo/Foshan Intangible Cultural Heritage Database

Status quo: setting up a stand to give performance

Nowadays, few people sing dragon boat songs in Longtan village because they cannot earn enough money by giving performance. “Most artists went away, newbies like me do not have performing opportunities thus less and less people make a career in this field.”

Why Chen Zhenqiu still insists on singing dragon boat songs? He said, he loved this folk art actually. “People always invite me to give performance. I can’t refuse them.” A Ma family in Xingtan will hold a “land celebration”(土地诞) to worship the Earth God in the second day of the eighth lunar month. After the ritual, they will feast family and friends and then the artist will sing dragon boat songs to them.

Photo/Foshan Intangible Cultural Heritage Database

In his spare time, Chen Zhenqiu will write songs and set up a stand in a market to practice. Now he will sing songs in Longtan’s fair. “I will print out the lyrics so that audience can understand and learn it.” In fact, he wants to take this chance to practice his singing skills and develop good psychological quality in order to be confident when giving performance in big occasions. Besides, he wants to promote this folk art. “It is my duty to introduce dragon boat song to other people. This is a kind of heritage.” He received some elementary school principals’ invitations though they could not pay him.

“Nowadays, few young people devote themselves in this folk art because the chance to perform is less and less and they could not earn money.” Chen Zhenqiu said social change resulted in this situation.

In 1970s, in several prosperous villages like Daliang, Beijiao and Chencun, people opened their doors to welcome artists during the Spring Festival. “If the artist forgets to sing for a family, they will ask him to come back.”

Now everyone fixes iron steel and closes doors in order to prevent the thief to come in. “In some high-rise buildings, when the artist sings songs on the first floor, people cannot hear so they will not give him red packets.”