Racing Dragon Boats in China

Without question, one of the most enthusiastic presentations of Chinese culture is this activity known as dragon boat racing. Teams of twenty athletes gather in colorful, forty-foot long boats with dragon masks decorating the ends, and then proceed to paddle as quickly as possible in an effort to surpass their competitor. As they wade through the water, they howl excitedly and beat their drums as loudly as possible. It is a great spectacle enjoyed by competitors and onlookers alike.

Dragon Boat Festival


So, how did this now wildly popular activity come to be a part of Chinese culture? Its origins are believed to trace back to over two thousand years ago. The first race is said to have been held on the fifth day of the Chinese calendar’s fifth lunar month. Apparently, it was conducted by superstitious villagers from Southern-Central China, along with the Yangtze River. They were attempting to ward off bad luck and encourage rainfall, which was much needed for the prosperity of their rice crops.

The dragon has long been associated with water in Asia—deemed the ruler of rivers, seas, clouds, and rainfalls. This symbolism made it the obvious choice for the villagers’ source of worship during this period of drought.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

It is good to note that there remain other philosophies about the origin of the race. The most significant alternative belief has its roots in the ancient tale of Qu Yuan. This is the story of a young man who was said to live during 340 and 278 BCE, otherwise known as the “Warring States” period, due to all the conflicts that broke out then.

He possessed a talent for writing beautiful poetry and serving his people. Eventually, he became known for his great patriotism, which manifested in his writing and works as a state official. With his family being of the noble class, he was given the opportunity to serve as an advisor to the king. Loyal and hardworking, his value was quickly recognized, and with that came jealous on-lookers.

After some time, he was accused of treason by envious officials, and he was found guilty, sent into exile. It was during this period of banishment in which he flourished as a writer, extensively detailing his love for his nation in the form of passionate poetry—these writings are still highly revered in China today.

In the end, his admirable patriotism resulted in his demise. Upon discovering that his state had been conquered by the state of Chu, his grief was too great to bare, and he committed suicide in the Miluo River.

According to the legend, this tragedy occurred on the fifth day of the fifth month. Locals allegedly took their boats out on the water when they heard of his death, searching for him. Without any luck, they did what they believed was the only thing they could: they made an effort to ward off evil spirits that may be lurking nearby to preserve his body, wherever it may have fallen. To do this, they would beat their paddles against the water and bang on drums. They even brought rice out onto the river, dropping handfuls in for the fish with the hopes that they would feed on the grains and leave Qu Yuan’s body to rest in peace.

Today, the customs have been adopted, but they serve the same purpose: to preserve Qu Yuan—of course, it is his memory that is being maintained now, rather than his body. In any case, dragon boats are raced on this day along the Miluo River, and in memory of the handfuls of rice that were once tossed in the waters, zongzi is eaten at the festival, as detailed below.

International Feats

Dragon boat racing has grown to become more popular on a global scale, its significance extending past the traditional setting of folk festivals and into the more secular world of competitive sports. The activity has become beloved in over sixty countries, particularly in those of North America, Europe, and Australia.

Dragon Boat Festival

There has even been an International Dragon Boat Federation that has been formed to establish rules to govern the sport on a global scale. When the sport has grown to be present in fifteen more countries, the organization hopes to apply to become a part of the International Olympic Committee, and thus take part in the Olympic Games.

Dragon Boat Festival

Still, if you want to see a dragon boat race in all its glory, it’s recommended you observe it in its most powerful setting: in China at a Dragon Boat Festival. This fête occurs annually, on this special fifth day of the fifth lunar month. All of the major cities have their own, featuring their unique customs, and each will have their customs.

Here are some mainstays that you can count on seeing at each…

  • Zongzi: a delicious, Chinese dish, made with glutinous rice that has been stuffed with either date or a melange of meats and eggs.
  • Incense bags: hanging around the necks of the locals. This is viewed as a method of warding off evil spirits, an important basis of the festival.

The races themselves are the main event, and everyone at the festival gathers to watch. The boats are led by the key paddler, and the pace is set by the drummer who sits at the back.

rice dumplings

In addition to the festivities on this particular day, the Chinese folk also celebrate the origins of the dragon boat all month long, via the ritual they have developed of hanging sweet sedge on their doors throughout the fifth month. This plant was selected because of its role in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a powerful tool for fighting illness while increasing longevity and vitality; they believe hanging it on their doors will work to ward off evil spirits. This practice has resulted in the fifth lunar month being nicknamed “sweet sedge month.”

So, are you ready to bare witness to the lively activity that provides both immediate entertainment and a lesson in Chinese history and culture? Head on over to a dragon boat festival—Hong Kong’s is the most highly recommended!

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Cez Krol

Travel blogger at eTramping
Cez lives in China like a local for the past 4 years. Apart from speaking the language, he loves to discover more about this unique country of extreme contrasts. He shares his China experiences here at Sublime China and on his blog eTramping, so go and check out what's out there for you in China.
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