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Songs for the Ages


Text by Wei Huihui Photographs by Ai Youdi

The Dragon Boat Song is a sort of folk rap from Shunde, Guangdong Province. Its name comes from the fact that performers usually hold a small wooden dragon boat while they sing.

According to historical records, the art originated during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). While some believe the art was created by fallen aristocrats of Longjiang Village of Shunde, others claim it evolved from songs performed to pray for happiness and dispel evil spirits during dragon boat races. Legend holds that the dragon boat song was “Song of Dragon Zhu,” which sounds similar in Chinese. According to this theory, the song was used to publicize movements to “overthrow the Qing court and restore the Ming (1368-1644),” supported by the fact that Ming emperors were surnamed Zhu. The song was allegedly changed later because the original had too much anti-government rhetoric.

Originally, the dragon boat song was popular in Shunde’s Longjiang and areas where locals conversed in Cantonese. Since the Shunde accent was considered authentic, some called the tune the “Shunde Dragon Song.” Historically, the Pearl River Delta areas were home to large numbers of professional and amateur dragon boat song artists, all of whom were male.

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