A more specific term for dragon boat as a sport is dragon boat race, which is a team paddling sport on water, using painted boats to which are attached decorative dragon heads and tails. The length of the race can be 500 meters and the normal crew number is 22, including 20 paddlers, 1 steerer and 1 drummer. It is a variation of rowing that originated in China.
During the dragon boat race the paddlers sit in pairs, facing forward unlike in rowing. The steerer, also called a helm or steersperson, either sits or stands at the back of the boat. A drummer sits at the front of the boat facing backwards, and helps set the pace of the paddle strokes by beating the drum. Teams can be singe-sex (typically all male) or mixed.
Good steerers keep a straight course during the race, and also keep the boat and the crew safe. During the race, a steering oar is used which is mounted on the left side near the rear of the boat, and by pulling the handle of the steering oar to right, the boat will then go left, and vice versa. Besides that, a steerer may also instruct the paddlers to take specific actions. In order to overcome all kinds of noises, instructions need to be spoken loudly and clearly so that the entire team could hear them. To ensure safety, he also needs to familiarize himself with the rules and other safety considerations such as the use of personal floatation devices, the weight distribution of paddlers, and the local water and weather conditions, etc. The steerer is often the strongest member of the team.
The drummer and the lead rowers together set the pace for the rest of the team to follow. As strength is not a requirement for a good drummer, light-weight women are often chosen for this role, and are acceptable on all male teams. In many teams the drummer rather than the steerer determines when the rowers are to change pace, and therefore a loud voice is essential for the role.
Rowers sit facing forwards and paddles are used in a canoe fashion (rather than the kayak style typical of crew). Because each individual handles only one oar, rowers will become specialized in right or left-handed rowing. Left-handed rowers are typically in higher demand. Stronger rowers are typically placed closer to the front of the boat, with the most experienced making the lead pair located directly after the drummer. The lead rowers and the drummer together set the pace for the team. All other rowers synchronize their strokes to the rowers in front of them (whom they can directly see) and the drum beat (which they can hear). In sharp maneuvers, rowers on one side of the boat may be instructed by the steerer to backpaddle, or lift or drag their oars.
The history of dragon boat can be traced back to more than 2000 years ago along on the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in Southern China such as the Chang Jiang (aka Yangtze). There are two main legends populary related to the custom of racing dragon boats:
Firstly, it was primarily held as a rite to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon, which plays a most venerated role among the Chinese zodiac mythology and was traditionally believed to be the ruler of rivers and seas that dominates clouds and rains. Sacrifices, sometimes human, were involved in this ritual, and for this reason it remains a violent clash even centuries later as the crew members of the competing boats throw stones and strike each other with cane sticks. Originally, paddlers or even a entire team falling into the water could receive no assistance from the onlookers as it was considered to be due to the will of this Dragon Deity and could not be interfered with. If people drowned it was considered as a sacrifice.
This belief coincides well with the time of this festival, which is anually held on the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to middle June), which is traditionally reckoned as a month of death and disease, a period of evil and darkness due to the high summer temperatures. Thus venerating the awakened Dragon was meant to avert misfortune and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and prosperity.
Some other rituals also serve as evidence of this theory, one of which called Awakening of the Dragon involved a Daoist priest dotting the protruding eyes of the dragon head carved on the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber. Another ritual required red paper being cut into the shape of the five most poisonous animals – the snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard and toad – that lure the Evil Spirits, and which were placed in the mouth of the wooden dragons in the front of the boats.
Another main legend connects this festival with a touching saga of a famous Chinese patriot poet named Qu Yuan. He lived in the pre-imperial period called the Period of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.) during which the area today known as China was torn into seven main states battling among themselves with unprecedented heights of military strategy. The author Sonzi (Sun Tzu) wrote the famous “Art of War” during this period, for example. As introduced above, Qu Yuan was a minister as well as a poet of the southern state of Chu, a champion of political loyalty and truth towards maintaing the Chu state’s sovereignty. The Chu king, however, fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan as ‘a sting in flesh’, and banished his most royal counselor. In his exile, so the legend goes, Qu Yuan produced some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature expressing his fervent love for his state and his deepest concern for its future. His body of work is contained in an anthology of poetry known as the Chuzi or the Odes of Chu. In the year 278 B.C., learning of the upcoming devastation of his country from invasion by a neighbouring warring state, he is said to have waded into the Miluo river in today’s Hunan Province holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era. The people learning of his suicide rushed out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperatedly to save him. They beat drums and splashed water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body, and later on, scattered rice into the water to prevent him from hunger. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that the rice meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since known as Zhongzi, although the dumplings are wrapped in leaves instead of silk. In order to commemorate him, people held Dragon Boat Race every year on the same day of his suicide.
Becoming an International Sport
Dragon boat racing has been practiced in China by around 20 million people. But over the past 25 years it has spread beyond Asia to Europe, North America, Australia and Africa, to become an international sport with a huge following. Nowadays it is among the fastest growing watersports and remains amazingly the largest team sport, with over 60 million participants in over 50 countries. Main racing federations includes the International Dragon Boat Federation, the European Dragon Boat Federation as well as the Asian Dragon Boat Federation.
IDBF member associations exist in many places, for example China DB Assn, Hongkong DB Assn, Chinese Taipei DB Assn, Macau DB Assn, Singapore DB Assn, Australian DB Federation, United States DB Federation, Dragon Boat Racing Council of Canada, British DB Racing Assn, Italian DB Fed’n, German DB Assn, Swiss DB Assn, South African DB Assn, Danish DB Assn, etc. The IDBF holds world championship regattas on alternate, odd numbered years (Yueyang Hunan PRC 1995, Hongkong 1997 (2 weeks before return to Chinese sovereignty to become HKSAR), Nottingham England UK 1999, Philadelphia Pennsylvania USA 2001, Qingpu County Shanghai PRC 2003, Berlin Germany 2005, Sydney Australia 2007. In honour of the 2008 summer Olympiad in Beijing, the China DB Assn and the IDBF will stage a major international dragon boat regatta.
The biggest dragon boat festival racing events outside of Asia are in Canada (Vancouver and Toronto each race than 180 x 25-person crews racing over two days in mid-late June in correspondance with the 5th Day of the 5th Month custom. As co-operation plays a most important role in successful dragon boat racing crews, Dragon Boar Racing has also become an influential and very popular social, corporate and charitable sport, during which friendship as well as strength and endurance are developed among the participants.