Dragon boat racing can be traced back to the Warring States period (475-221BC), and the tradition was derived from the sacrifice which was made to the totem of the ethnic group in southern China. They thought the Chinese dragon was an auspicious creature and had the power to control water, rainfall, typhoons, and floods. Therefore people celebrate dragon boat racing to pray for great weather and a good harvest every year.
Before the dragon boat racing starts, people hold a ceremony to plead with the dragon for protection. Then, after the drumming, players take part in the race in the dragon-shaped canoes. Outside of the race, other players perform programs with a strong rhythm. Sometimes, people also like to drive the canoes to visit neighbors and present gifts.
What is a Dragon Boat?
A typical dragon boat is different from other boats, in that it is a long and narrow canoe about 50-100 feet (15-30m) in length, with a width of about 5.5 feet (1.6m), accommodating paddlers seated side by side.
Dragon boats are designed to resemble the classic dragon that had the head of an ox, antlers of a deer, mane of a horse, body of a python, claws of a hawk, and fins and tail of a fish. Legend has it that dragons can fly in the sky and be the rulers of the water on the earth: rivers, lakes, and seas. Chinese people believe that dragons are auspicious and benevolent animals powering over clouds, mists, and rains, which can bring good fortune and prosperity. So the prow is crafted as the head of a dragon with the stern the tail, the hull painted with scales and the paddles symbolically representing the claws. People rowed dragon boats to imitate dragons swimming in the sea and hoped that the real dragon would appear and exert its power. In that way, people prayed for good weather and peace for the next year. Hence, the Dragon Boat with the racing tradition has been passed down over generations.
What are the rules of Dragon Boat Racing?
Southern China, such as Guangdong and Fujian Provinces, have preserved the most traditional dragon boat racing. The crew of a standard dragon boat has 42 members, including 36 paddlers sitting in pairs, 2 drummers in the center, 1 standard-bearer at the head of the boat, and 1 steerer/helmsman standing at the head (bow) and rear (stern) of boat respectively. If the Dragon boats need to turn around, all of the paddlers and steerers can simply turn around in their seats to reverse the direction.
In modern times, crew numbers may be more or less than the standard, according to local regulations. For instance, you can see two types of dragon boats in Hong Kong International Races: the standard and the small. A Standard Dragon Boat has 1 drummer, 18 paddlers and 1 steersman. The small one has 1 drummer, 10 paddlers, and 1 steersman. They play different functions in racing. The drummer leads the paddlers’ strokes by the rhythmic drum beat. Pairs of paddlers row together regularly with the rhythm of the drummer, and the steersman controls the direction of a dragon boat’s progress while sitting in the stern.
Generally, the teams will be divided according to gender and level of crew skill and experience. In competition, with the same start line and end, each dragon boat should row as straight as they can through the course, as a course umpire follows. There needs to be a flag for each boat to pull at the finish line. To grab the flag signals that the boat has finished the race.
Where can you see Dragon boat races in China?
Guangzhou International Dragon Boat Invitational Tournament
The Guangzhou International Dragon Boat Invitational Tournament is reputed to be one of the best competitions in the world. In the fifth month of lunar calendar, the Dragon Boat Race dominates Guangzhou. The goal of popularizing the dragon boat is to propagate the folk culture and spread their spirit of unity and cooperation. There are more than 100 dragon boats in the competition every year.
Address: The Reach of the Zhujiang River from the Haiyin Bridge to the Guangzhou Bridge.
Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Race
Hong Kong is the cradle of the modern international Dragon Boat Race. The Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Race started in the year 1976, and is one of the largest and most boisterous international competitions in Hong Kong.
Address: Victoria Harbor, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Yueyang Dragon Boat Race
Yueyang is the birthplace of the Dragon Boat and an historical and cultural city. During the festival, dragon boat cruises and competitions are held on the Miluo River. There is also a splendid performance, including Paramotors, water scooters, and the folk opera. After that, you can also visit the Dongting Lake and the Junshan Islan.
Address: Bank of the Miluo River, Yueyang, Hunan Province.
Dragon Boat Race in Zhenyuan County
Zhengyuan County is the ancient and cultural place located on the bank of the Wuyang River. In the traditional culture, the Dragon Boat Festival is a carnival day in the county. In the early morning, after performing the sacrifice to the dragon, paddlers will drag the head of the dragon to the foot of the mountain. To the accompaniment of traditional instruments, the curtain rises for singing and dancing.
Address: Zhenyuan County, Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province.
Hangzhou Xixi Dragon Boat Festival Day
During the festival, every family likes to take part in the race. The important thing is not competing, but the festive mood. It is fun to watch with more than 10 strong paddlers in a small dragon boat and a lot of people fall into the shallow water. In the loud laughter, the competition becomes even more interesting.
Address: Zhoujia Village, Xihu District Hangzhou.