Dragon boat racing began more than 2000 years ago on the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in the valleys of southern China as a fertility rite to ensure plentiful crops. The first participants were superstitious and held their own celebration on the fifth day of the of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (summer solstice).This time of year was traditionally associated with disease and death; a dark and evil time. The race was held to avert misfortune and encourage the rains needed for prosperity – and the object of their worship was the dragon.

The most venerated of Chinese zodiac deities, the dragon of Asia, has traditionally been a symbol of water. It is said to rule the rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rains. The first races were meant to mock dragon battles staged in order to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Sacrifices were made to the dragon sorcerers.  Humans, the cleverest and most powerful of all beings, were the original sacrifices. Even much later, when a rower or an entire team fell into the water, they would receive no assistance because it was believed to be wrong to interfere with the will of the gods.

Over the years a second story was integrated to give the festival a dual meaning – the touching saga of Qu Yuan. Chinese history describes the fourth century B.C. as the Warring States period; a time of shifting alliances and much treachery. In a kingdom called Chu, their lived a great patriot and poet by that name of Qu Yuan. He championed political reform and truth as essential to a healthy state. The King, who had fallen under the influence of corrupt ministers, banished his most loyal counselor, Qu Yuan, from the kingdom. Left to wander if the countryside, Qu Yuan composed some of China’s greatest poetry expressing his fervent love for his country, his deep concern for his country and its future. Upon learning of Chu’s devastation at the hands of a rival kingdom, he leaped into the Mi Lo river holding a great rock in a display of his heartfelt sorrow. The people loved Qu Yuan very much and raced out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river in a vain attempt to save him. They beat on drums and splashed their oars in the water, trying to keep the of fish and water dragons away from his body. To honour his soul and to ensure it didn’t go hungry, they scattered rice into the water. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that the rice that was meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages and to tie five colours of string about it to ward off the dragon. This tradition is continued to today, although now the dumplings are wrapped in leaves rather than silk.

For many centuries, dragon boat racing was a violent clash known as the “To Fight and Cross Over” ceremony. Often, the race resembled a naval battle, with crew members of competing boats throwing stones and striking at one another with cane sticks. Onlookers played an active role in the race. Fans on riverside would cheer and give gifts of red and green silk to the boat from their region but would greet opposing boats with angry shouts and a hail of stones. It was thought unlucky if at least one drowning did not occur.

Dragon Boats

The multi colored boats were decorated with ferocious-looking dragon heads, scaly bodys and elaborate tails that rose out of the sea. They were up to 30 metres in length and just wide enough for two people to sit in.  Strong and experienced men were required to power a competitive boat so fishermen were recruited to become oarsmen. Crews also included a leader, a steersman, a drummer, a flag waver and a hand clapper. A feverish pace was required from the drummer and hand clapper to establish the necessary cadence to win. Sometimes as many as four singers rode in the boat. Smaller boats laden with food and wine catered to the competitors.

Rites Developed in Connection with the Festival

“Awakening of the Dragon” is where a priest prepares a boat by dotting the protruding eyes of the dragon head in order to end his slumber.  After the race, a similar ceremony is required to put him to rest again. Another interesting ritual involves the “five poisonous animals” – the snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard and toad. Red paper is cut into the shapes of these animals, red symbolizing vigor and life, and then placed in a gourd to trap the evil spirits. Such magic is needed to overcome the evil that the fifth of the fifth engenders.