Myth and Legend
Surround the History of Dragon Boat Racing
Dragon boat racing began more than 2000 years ago on the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in the valleys of southern China as a fertility rite to ensure plentiful crops. The first participants were superstitious and held their own celebration on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (summer solstice). This time of year was traditionally associated with disease and death; a dark and evil time.
The race was held to avert misfortune and encourage the rains needed for prosperity - and the object of their worship was the dragon. The most venerated of Chinese zodiac deities, the dragon of Asia has traditionally been a symbol of water. It is said to rule the rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rains.
The first races were meant to mock dragon battles staged in order to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Sacrifices were made to the dragon sorcerers. Humans, the cleverest and most powerful of all beings were the original sacrifices. Even much later, when a rower or an entire team fell into the water they would receive no assistance because it was believed to be wrong to interfere with the will of the gods.
Over the years a second story was integrated to give the festival a dual meaning - the touching saga of Qu Yuan. Chinese history describes the fourth century B.C. as the Warring States period; a time of shifting alliances and much treachery. In a kingdom called Chu, a great patriot and poet, Qu Yuan (340 BC - 278 BC) championed political reform and truth as essential to a healthy state. Qu Yuan composed some of China's greatest poetry, expressing his fervent love and deep concern for his country and its future. Upon learning of corruption and devastation in the kingdom of Chu, at the hands of a rival kingdom, Qu Yuan leapt into the Miluo river, in today's Hunan Province, holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest and a display of his heartfelt sorrow.
The people loved Qu Yuan very much and, hearing of his suicide, raced out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river in a vain attempt to save him. They beat on drums and splashed their oars in the water, trying to keep the of fish and water dragons away from his body. To honor his soul and to ensure it did not go hungry, they scattered rice into the water. Another belief is that the people scattered rice to feed the fish and prevent the fish from devouring Qu Yuan's body.
However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that the rice meant for him was being eaten by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward of the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since, known as zongzi, or Chinese rice dumplings. Zongzi is made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Today, Dragon Boat Festivals are celebrated around the world with Dragon Boat racing as a key element of the festival.