To mark this year’s Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese tradition believed to have originated some 2,000 years ago, Danish toy company Lego last month unveiled an elaborate, 643-piece set complete with two colorful dragon boats, figures of hunky paddlers, and even rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves.
The dragon boat race set is the fifth Lego set dedicated to a Chinese theme, according to a company representative. Last year, Lego launched a set depicting the Great Wall of China, and another showcasing the Shanghai skyline. This was followed by two sets released earlier this year: one of a Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner, and another of a dragon dancer.
Producing the dragon boat set, which is currently on sale in the China and Asia-Pacific markets and will soon be available globally, involved researching “the history, the mythology, the meaning of the festival, even the specifications for a boat to be able to take part in the race,” said Dimitrios Stamatis, a designer at Lego. He was especially excited about having sticky rice dumplings in the set. “We had to include them as they are so iconic and the print on the piece that represents them is amazing.”
The Dragon Boat Festival is said to commemorate Qu Yuan, a renowned poet and minister who lived in the Chinese kingdom of Chu in the third century BC during the strife-ridden Warring States period. After he was slandered by rivals, the king banished him and did not follow his advice to ally with a rival kingdom for their mutual defense. The forlorn poet continued penning patriotic verses while in exile, but when he heard that the capital of Chu had been invaded, he threw himself into a river and drowned himself. Legend has it that local fishermen tried in vain to save him. To stop the fish from eating his body, they thrashed their oars and beat their drums, and threw rice dumplings in the water in his honor. Thus were born the rituals of the Dragon Boat festival.
Now, the story of Qu Yuan will be told with colorful plastic bricks as Lego looks to propel its global business with a massive expansion in China.
Lego returned to growth last year after a tough two years marked by its first drop in sales and profits in more than a decade, and the collapse of Toys R Us in 2017, which upended its American business. Annual revenue growth worldwide last year reached 4%, hitting 36.4 billion Danish krone ($5.5 billion). China was by far the strongest performer, enjoying strong double-digit growth compared with low single-digits in the US and Western Europe. The company has now reaffirmed its title as the world’s largest toymaker (paywall)—an impressive turnaround from its brush with bankruptcy in the early 2000s—even though its rivals like Hasbro and Mattel sell a wider range of toys than just the humble brick.
To build on its momentum in China, Lego plans to open 80 stores there this year, more than doubling its current count, focusing mainly on smaller cities. It is already well-established in Shanghai, where it has two company-owned flagship stores, and Beijing, where it opened its first flagship store in February.
“China is a strategic growth market for the Lego Group, and we will continue to bring the creative Lego play experience to more Chinese children,” a Lego spokesperson told Quartz.
Dragon boats and dumplings might just be the beginning.