Dragon boat racing began in China more than 2000 years ago as a rite to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Races were held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (the summer solstice).
Awakening the Dragon, traditionally a symbol of water, was meant to avert misfortune and encourage rainfall needed to ensure bountiful crops. Sacrifices, sometimes human, were involved in this ritual. For many centuries it was a violent race with crew members throwing stones and striking at other boats with cane sticks. Onlookers also played an active role in the race. Fans on the 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 boating also commemorates the life and death of Chinese patriot and poet Qu Yuan, who lived from 340 to 278 B.C. This was a time of political unrest, treachery and war between the Chinese states. Jealous ministers advised the Chu king not to listen to the greatly loyal Qu Yuan’s advice on reforms for his home state and he was exiled from his beloved home. Left to wander the countryside, Qu Yuan composed some of China’s greatest poetry expressing his great love and deep concern for his country and its future.
Upon learning of the devastation of Chu by a neighbouring warring state, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi Lo River holding a great rock to commit ritual suicide in a display of heartfelt sorrow and as a protest against the corruption of the era.
The people loved Qu Yuan very much and raced out in their fishing boats in a desperate attempt to save him. They beat on drums and splashed their oars in the water, trying to keep the 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. Since then, the tradition of dragon boat racing has continued to honour the memory of Qu Yuan.
Dragon Boating 1903 at Dongting Lake in Hunan, China