Modern-day Dragon Boating has evolved as a sport, capturing the world by storm. Over 50 million paddlers participate annually in competitions worldwide and it has become one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world. It is competitive, social and fun but its roots are deeply imbedded in Chinese culture dating back over 2000 years.
Originally Dragon Boating was used for religious purposes as a way to appease the rain gods. Later Dragon Boating festivals celebrated the life of Qu Yuan, a great warrior poet, who committed suicide by drowning himself in the river Mi Lo as a protest against political corruption of the day. According to the legend, when news of his drowning became known, boats were launched by the local fishermen in a race to be first to recover Qu Yuan's body. Thus dragon boat racing was born.
The furious splashing of paddles and banging of drums used these days to get the crews in time has its origin in the fishermen's bid to scare off fish and other river creatures from defiling his body. To commemorate his sacrifice, the people began to organise Dragon Boating festivals in his memory. During early festivals fishermen would throw rice into the river as an offering to Qu Yuan, so that his spirit could be nourished in the next world. But legend also has it that one night Qu Yuan appeared in a dream to one of the fishermen, telling him that the fish were eating the rice offerings, and to prevent that the rice ought to be wrapped in silk – later replaced by bamboo leaves (called Zongzi or Doongs) – to protect the offerings. The Qu Yuan Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated every year on the 5th day of the 5th Moon (month) of the Chinese lunar calendar. The practise of making offerings of Zongzi's is an extremely important part of the Festival and it is encouraging to note that the offering of this culinary treat is still practised among Chinese communities and at many Dragon Boating events throughout the world.
The Dragon Boat itself is deeply imbedded in China’s “Dragon” Culture, with each boat having an ornately carved dragon’s head at the bow and a dragon’s tail at the stern. Boats are normally painted with scales. The paddles symbolically represent the dragon’s claws. Although we are used to seeing 20 seat Dragon Boats, there are boats with from 10 to 50 plus paddlers, in addition to the drummer and the sweep, sometimes multiple sweeps in the bigger boats.
Dragon Boating is a fantastic team sport with a rich history and a very bright future.