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The boats are spectacularly ornate, brilliantly coloured and fronted with the ferocious heads of dragons. Many of them now are manufactured by mechanical processes out of fibreglass, but plenty, wherever the dragon boat races are held, anywhere in the world, are the work of a Taiwanese boat-maker - the only one thought to be still at work at this craft. Liu Qin-Zheng's boatyard is in a tranquil part of Taipei, a dizzyingly smart and busy modern capital. Across the fields and beyond a humming slash of motorway, the enormous bamboo stalk of Taipei 101, the second-tallest building in the world, stood like a punctuation mark.

Down here, Liu Qin-Zheng practises his art with no hurry and clear enjoyment. Nine dogs were about him, sleeping, and burst into a furious chorus of barking as the unfamiliar visitor came in. Mr Liu was at work on a model boat, his tools laid out in exquisite order. He had the face of a satisfied man; a clever, high-cheekboned, agile face. He seemed alive with pleasure.

This fourth generation boat-builder's boats go all over the world. 'Before I die,' he said unaffectedly, 'I would like to travel the world to see all my children,' meaning his boats. His work provides the centrepiece of festivals not just in mainland China, but in countries such as Germany, South Africa and Finland. Was he proud of keeping a tradition alive? 'I just make a living. The government doesn't encourage traditions - they don't want to get involved.' Mr Liu understood well that, considering the delicate state of relations between Taiwan and the People's Republic, supporting a oneman craft could be seen as staking a claim.

There was something elegiac about Mr Liu's little corner of the world. His children were not interested: 'Not enough business.' His one apprentice was fifty, and also worked as a mechanic. His boats, which cost 700,000 Taiwanese dollars (£15,000), were made to last. He was a happy man: his trade would see him out. When he retires, it may be fibreglass models or museum pieces, unless the habit of making boats as a hobby strikes a Taiwanese as a worthy enterprise.

The Dragon Boat Festival is a custom seemingly kept going by willpower, surrounded by the remains of a great tradition of endeavour. Everyone I spoke to knew what they were doing was important; no-one had a great deal of faith that it would last beyond their lifetimes. It doesn't always feel like it, but Taiwan has had some luck in its turbulent history, both as a museum and as the fragments of a living tradition. When this dies out, it will still be a beautiful and fascinating place; but the little flame that lights and warms those precious remains of the past will have gone out.

Philip Hensher is the author of six novels and was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for The Northern Clemency (£12.99, Fourth Estate).

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The article ‘Here be dragons’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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