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 paddler 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, Qu Yuan, a great patriot and poet, 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 and committed ritual suicide. The people loved Qu Yuan and raced 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 fish and water dragons away from his body.
Dragon boat racing is one of the fastest growing team water sports in the world. In the West, it is especially popular among breast cancer survivors, and its introduction to this group is particularly noteworthy: Conventional medicine advised survivors to avoid repetitive upper body motion because it could cause lymphedema, a swelling of the arms that is generally irreversible. In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie, a Canadian sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist, conducted a study to challenge this myth. The sport he chose was paddling, because it provides strenuous, repetitive upper body activity. He settled on dragon boats, rather than tippy canoes, because of their stability. And, most importantly, he enlisted two dozen breast cancer survivors willing to take the risk. Against conventional wisdom, at the end of the study not a single survivor had developed lymphedema. Since then, further studies have shown that that the intense upper-body exercise entailed in this sport actually decreases lymphedema risk.
Today, dragon boat festivals are held around the world. Modern festivals typically start with the Awakening of the Dragon, with a Taoist priest (or some other designated official) dotting the eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat. Doing so symbolizes the dragon ending its slumber and reenergizing its spirit, or ch'i. Dragon boats normally hold 20 paddlers, each with one oar, sitting two-by-two, plus a steersperson and a drummer to keep everyone in sync. A race is typically a sprint event of several hundred meters, with 500 meters being the most common. Races measuring 200, 1000, and 2000 meters are also standard distances in international competition. Other distances, depending on the size of the body of water, may also be used in local festivals.