Chinese Dragon Boat Races: A Short History
Dragon boat races though now worldwide and are of Chinese origin. An ancient Chinese legend tells that dragon boat races took place from the 3rd century BC with the aim of honoring a famous poet, diplomat and patriot, from what is now Guangdong Province in southern China, called Qu Yuan.
According to the legend, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into a river, as an act of sacrifice, to protest the corrupt politicians of the time. Seeing the poet in the river, local villagers raced into their boats and rowed as fast as they could to save him. Though their efforts to save him were futile they beat drums and splashed water with their paddles around the area where his body lay, to keep fish away and to defend his soul from evil. Thus the dramatic style of rowing associated with Chinese dragon boats was born.
It is said that later the ghost of Qu Yuan appeared to some villagers where he explained his suicide mission to them, of how he sacrificed himself for them and for the Chinese people, then asked for them to wrap rice in three cornered silken packages to defend his spirit from the dragon, the ruler of the waters. These packages of rice became known as zongzi and are still used as part of the ceremony today, though wrapped in leaves (usually bamboo), rather than silk.
The dragon boat races began to take place in China on the anniversary of his death each year as a tribute to him, and it became eventually an integral part of an entire festival, the Duanwu or Duen Ng festival in China, usually referred to these days in the West as The Festival Of The Dragon, where it was held to mark the beginning of the rice planting season. With importance being given to honor the spirit of the dragon, the ruler of the water, and in doing so encourage the rains to come to the fields. Slightly different versions of the Chinese dragon races and festival began to appear in surrounding countries which shared some of China’s cultural heritage, like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Korea. And since the late 1980s, with the help of Chinese emigres, the sport, and the festival, became better known internationally, becoming initially popular in countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe.
The dragon boat race itself began to be seen as a competitive sport a few decades ago, with what is generally acknowledged as the first international competitive race of modern times taking place in Hong kong in 1976.
These international dragon boat races are governed and organized by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). Currently the organization has over 50 nations and is growing fast. Not surprisingly, there is a majority of East Asian nations there, as well as most major Western countries. But other countries too, as far afield as South Africa, Turkey, Chile, Ireland and Armenia, have also became involved in recent years. A remarkable tribute indeed to the poet and patriot Qu Yuan.