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.
According to local elders, artists originally sang the dragon boat song without musical accompaniment. During one performance, someone accidentally tapped a tray and plate. This inspired the addition of gongs and drums, and soon the accompaniment became an indispensable part of the art. Most often, the gong and drum are now used in performance. However, some senior artists employ many more instruments in their own unique ways, such as bamboo horns, porcelain trays and sticks, in addition to gongs and drums. Some artists will improvise by changing the original song mid-performance.
Traditional dragon boat song repertoires have roots in folk legends and myths that were passed down by word of mouth. In the past, most artists came from poor families, and many performed on the street to earn a living. During Ming and Qing dynasties, songs mentioning contemporary social affairs emerged, which were named “Dragon Boat Social Songs.” During Spring Festival, some artists performed door-to-door, singing self-composed tunes of good wishes, hoping for generosity from homeowners. The most capable composers could even create tailor-made songs on-the-fly according to the social status and profession of the resident.