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River Carnival

Giant and small boats rush forward on the river, tens of thousands of boat people row and roar, an enthusiastic audience of hundreds of thousands beat drums and shout at the top of their voices. One day after the Qingming Festival on April 5, the annual boat race in the ancient town of Qintong was held at the center of the Lixiahe region in Yangzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province.

Known by the locals as the "bottom of the pot" in northern Jiangsu, the Lixiahe region has numerous rivers which flow into hundreds of big and small lakes. This special topography has reared unique folk festivals, among which the boat race is the grandest carnival on the river.

The first time I heard about the Qintong boat race was from the "Records of Folk Customs in China" written by Hu Pu'an, a contemporary researcher of folk culture.

The book says on every Qingming Festival, an occasion when the Chinese pay homage to their ancestors' tombs, the farmers in the Lixiahe region prepare big boats, each of which can hold over 20 people. With punt-poles and oars, the boatmen vie for first place.

Although Qintong is not far from my hometown of Yancheng in Jiangsu, I had never seen this grand folk festival. In early April, I took the bus to Qintong. At the edges of the light green rice fields, pink peaches were blooming under the azure sky. The air was humid and cool.

On the bus with me were excited farmers carrying all sorts of items they'd just purchased from the market for the boat race. Some farmers said this year's boat race would be even grander than previous years.

When we finally arrived at Qintong, it was already dusk. Groups of farmers roamed along the roads. Behind them, colourful boats floated on the water. From several places, the rhythmic beating of drums added more excitement to the evening atmosphere.

There are many local stories as to the origin of the Qintong boat race. One says that in 1131, the army of the Jin State (1115-1234) had defeated the weak resistance of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and was about to swallow another big part of the Song territory.

But at Qintong, the Jin army encountered strong resistance from the farmers led by Zhang Rong and Jia Hu. They fought courageously until the Jin soldiers fled northward.

Thousands of farmers died in the fierce battle. Local people buried them and visited their anonymous tombs by boat every year on the Qingming Festival. Gradually, this became the boat race.

Surrounded by water, Qintong sits between the nearby cities of Taizhou, Dongtai and Xinhua. Throughout history, Qintong has been the transport center for the region. The vast water surface near the town provides a natural arena for the boat race.

On my second day, I met Zhu Fengying, leader of the Qindong Village in Qintong Town. She took me to the village pier to see the preparations for the race.

Villagers were busy making the last decorations for a dozen boats of various shapes. Most of the boats in the race can be put into the category of "hao zi chuan (punt-pole boats)." Normally 12 meters long and 3 meters wide, the boats used to be made of wood but are now made of cement.

While the bigger boats can hold some 40 people at the same time, the smaller ones can carry 20 people.

Standing back to back, the rowers hold a punt-pole which is more than 5 meters long, with a tiny piece of red cloth tied at the top of the pole.

At the head of the boat stands the "zhan lang tou (standing on the waves)," the person who guides the rowers in the race. This role is always taken by an experienced man.

At the end of the boat is a person beating a drum. He or she must closely follow the movement of the boat head, so that the drum rhythm can better co-ordinate the rowers.

In recent years, women in many villages have also formed their own teams. To be different from the men, the women all wear colorful clothes.

There are also performance boats. Some villages connect two boats together and construct tall "mansions" on them with all sorts of decorations.

Inside the mansions, bands and troupes formed by villagers will perform local operas loved by the people.

There are also dragon boats, on which villagers will pretend to be one or several dragons and dance to the thundering drum beat. Such dragon dances are far more exciting than the usual dragon dances on the land seen during the Spring Festival.

All the boats for the race are selected by village seniors. The boat owners don't mind their boats being used - in fact they all regard it as an honor to serve the village. If one village happens to lack strong boats, the villagers are always willing to buy new ones for the race.

The volunteer rowers get nothing from the village. Instead, each must pay 30 or 50 yuan (US$3.60-$6) so that the village can buy costumes and decorate the boats.

In Qindong Village with just over 1,000 people, they prepared 12 boats, including a giant dragon boat and five women's boats. Over 400 villagers from Qindong took part in the race. On average, each family had at least one person in the race.

With the boats well decorated, the villagers then held simple ceremonies to offer sacrifices of a pig's head, a carp and a cock to the leading punt-pole of the boat. The owner of the boat, his family members and the rowers all knelt down in front of the boat, while village seniors burnt incense and set off firecrackers to pray for an ample harvest and good fortune in the coming year.

From the time the boat is ready, its rowers have to practise in the afternoon for several weeks before the race. The boat heads are the most honored men in the village during these days. Their family members must take great care to let them have a good rest at home, so that they can better direct the boats.

On April 5, the day of the Qingming Festival, I followed the boats of Qindong Village to pay homage to the ancestors. In the darkness, I could barely see the face of the rowers, who followed the drum silently.

We reached the anonymous tombs in no time. But the dragon boat was ahead of us. While villagers danced the dragon dance among the tombs, rowers were burning paper money and incense for the dead.

In less than 10 minutes, we had visited all the tombs on this small patch of land. Everyone boarded their boats quickly and set out for the next tomb site.

On April 6, the day of the boat race finally came. It was just 5 in the morning when boats started leaving the village for the race arena at the Qintong town. By 6:30, numerous boats from other villages and towns were passing by the Qindong Village. Each boat would beat its drum and show off its decorations. In the rising sunlight, every boat and every face was shining.

The big area of water outside of Qintong was covered by boats. The long punt-poles seemed like a leafless forest. At 9 in the morning, with the signal of gunfire the boats began to move. The ambitious rowers soon staged small-scale races. Even the boats for performances joined in the contest.

Sitting in a motorboat which ran among the race boats to guide the contest, I gradually realized that all the boats were obeying rules.

The bigger performance boats circled around the edges of the lake to show off in front of the audience on the bank. The smaller race boats stayed on the middle of the lake.

But there was no organized race as I had expected. When a race boat met an ideal competitor, the two boats would slightly touch at their bows and then start to race.

At the drum beat, the rowers pushed the boat forward by sticking their punt-poles into the bottom of the lake. Shooting forward like arrows, the boats would stop the race abruptly upon the beating of gongs. Whoever stopped ahead would be the winner. Both teams would laugh and part peacefully, heading for other competitors.

It was difficult for me to tell who were the winners. But obviously, everyone greatly enjoyed the happy festival.

After the race, the rowers didn't hurry back. They stayed in Qintong town for shopping or to visit friends and relatives. Before dusk, the boats went back to their villages for another ceremony involving the sending of presents to fellow villagers.

The locals believe that the leading punt-poles, the drums and the flags are good presents because they can help young couples to conceive and have good births.

Many couples who got the presents did have children afterwards. They then contribute money to the boat race the following year.

After sending out the punt-poles and other presents, the rowers gather together to drink and eat. They don't forget to bring home meat and wine to their family, as they believe the food will bring good luck to the house.

For years, people of the Lixiahe region have been staging boat races at Qintong and it has become one of the most important festivals upholding local customs.

(China Daily 04/17/2001)

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