Tue, Jun 19, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Enter thedragon

As the heir to an ancient art, Liu Ching-cheng believes that the market for his hand-crafted dragon boats will last his lifetime


A stone's throw from his modest open-air workshop, Liu Ching-cheng (劉清正) keenly follows a team of oarsmen practicing for the annual Dragon Boat Festival in a colorful wooden boat he built.

A fourth-generation maker of the finely crafted wooden boats, Liu can count hundreds of dragon boats he has built with his own hands, in a career spanning nearly five decades, despite waning business and a lack of help.

Now 66, he is considered the last master making traditional wooden dragon boats in Taiwan.

"Raised in a family of boat makers I never thought of doing something else for a living. It became my calling naturally," said the slim, soft-spoken Liu.

He began learning his craft at 18 from his father, who in his heyday had employed six artisans and "earned enough with a couple of day's work to support the family for a whole month".

But Liu believes that the downturn of his family business is mainly due to the decline of river fishing, as well as competition from boats made to modern design using modern materials.

"Now I get orders only for dragon boats while previously there was also a great demand for sampans for fishing. Once, two or three years went by before I got any new orders," Liu lamented.

Uncertainty for the future, however, has not dampened Liu's spirits or swayed his determination.

"I never look back or regret that I should have switched to a more stable job. My family business will continue at least while I am around," he said.

The master has not only insisted on hand-crafting all the parts for his boats but on using only wood rather than the cheaper and lighter fiberglass preferred by other boat builders nowadays.

"It is the tradition to build wooden dragon boats and I think such a tradition should continue," Liu said.

Dragon boats, brightly colored long narrow wooden boats with elaborately-carved dragon heads decorating the prows, are believed to date back to ancient Chinese courts some thousands of years ago.

They were later used for racing, specifically in the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the "double fifth," the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, in memory of the patriotic Chinese poet Qu Yuan, a folk hero of the Warring States period (403-221BC).

Qu Yuan (屈原) was revered for his loyalty and integrity but was exiled by the king who was ill-advised by other corrupted and jealous courtiers. While in exile Qu is believed to have produced some masterpieces of Chinese poetry.

Legend has it that Qu threw himself into a river to protest official corruption and that local people who respected him rowed their boats to where he had disappeared and scattered sticky rice, or zongzi (粽子), into the water to prevent fish from eating his body.

The ritual later developed into the annual Dragon Boat Festival. Today is the official day of the festival.

Liu, nicknamed "Master A-Cheng," charges some NT$500,000 (US$15,150) for an 18-oar dragon boat made of China fir, around 11m long and with a lifespan of up to 20 years. The price is double that of a fiberglass boat.

Most of Liu's clients now are government agencies or religious groups that order the traditional dragon boats for racing events.

This year he was commissioned by the Taipei City Government to build four large wooden dragon boats to be paddled by 18 oarsmen each, and five smaller ones for 10 oarsmen each.

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