Dragon Boat Racing is a symbol of Chinese culture and spirit. As one of the three largest Chinese festivals of the year, this ancient and time-honored celebration can now be witnessed world-wild. To be a part of a Dragon Boat Race as a participant or spectator, is a thrilling experience.
Dragon Boat racing is a reflection of a memorable historical event of self-sacrifice that occurred more than 2,400 years ago.
Numerous supremacy wars were erupting during the “Warring States” of the fourth century B.C.E.. Emperor Chu’s kingdom was one of the mightiest remaining. A man of great respect, Qu Yuan was a poet, minister and councilor to the Emperor. Unfortunately, he was cast into exile as a result of his politically sensitive poems. Distraught and inconsolable, Qu Yan drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in an act of desperation and sorrow.
Local fisherman raced to the tragic scene in their long, swift boats. To prevent his body from being despoiled by the fish, they splashed their oars and beat their drums to disperse them. They threw rice dumplings wrapped in leaves into the river in attempts to distract the fish from Qu Yuan. The Dragon Boat Festival, typically held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, re-enacts both the human tragedy and the sense of community that it evoked.
Ancient Ceremonies and Rituals
Many of the original rituals are still practiced today at festivals all over the world. As part of the opening ceremonies, a common practice is to “Awaken the Dragon” by dotting the eyes of the Dragon’s heads of each of the boats. Historically, the Dragon was the favored symbol of the Emperor, and the best Chinese artists were commissioned. Shortly after one such artist put the finishing touches on his work by etching the eyes on his exquisite stone Dragon, thunder and turbulent weather swept the land. It was believed the mythical beast was “awakened” and had “come to life” as a result. Also, the significance of the eye-dotting was to impress the boats and their crews with the strength of the Dragon and the blessing of the Goddess of the Sea.
Rice dumplings are eaten today as an important part of the celebration. These packets of predominantly sticky rice, often with lentils and morsels of meat, are tightly wrapped in leaves and cooked. These, along with other cultural goodies can be found at many of the Festivals’ food pavilions.
Dragon Boats – Long, Sleek and Colorful
Traditional boats can range from about 30 to 100 feet in length, with 20 to 48 paddlers, but are only wide enough to seat two paddlers side by side. Fitted with a carved Dragon head and tail, they represent the mythical creature itself. The traditional boat is made of teak and can weigh upwards of 1000 pounds. Modern boats consist of new synthetic materials.
The Hong Kong style of boats are popular and are often used in modern day races. These boats can maintain twenty athletes, one drummer and one steersperson. The drummer sits at the head facing the paddlers to keep the pace and a steersperson at the tail to keep the boat on course.