On Saturday, April 27, 2019, the city of Tampa will host its annual Tampa Bay International Dragon Boat Festival, a joint fundraising event by The Junior League of Tampa and the Pan Am Dragon Boat Association.
If you research this event online, the main descriptors are:
While I understand news outlets are required to use certain marketing strategies, I’m surprised there is no mention of what dragon boat actually is, where it comes from, and why we practice it today.
That is why I’m here to answer those burning questions! In this post, I cover the sport’s modern day practices as well as its history and cultural significance.
What is Dragon Boat?
Dragon Boat is a team water sport consisting of 22 people in a 40 ft canoe. Of the 22 people, 20 are paddlers, 1 is a steersperson, and 1 is a drummer. During races, a dragon head is usually attached to the front of the boat and a tail to the back. The paddlers, then, represent the dragon’s legs on either side.
As you can see from the image above, all members except the drummer face forward, as she keeps pace of the boat by beating her drum on every stroke. And, all members are seated except the steersperson, who stands at the helm and guides the boat with a long oar.
While dragon boating is similar to other water sports like kayaking and rowing, there are a few key differences to note:
- Kayakers sit with their legs in front of them, while dragon boaters sit on a bench and drive (push off) with their legs
- Kayakers use a paddle that is bladed on both ends, allowing them to paddle on both sides, while dragon boaters use a paddle that is bladed on one end, since they only paddle on one side
- Unlike rowers who sit backwards and row with oars attached to the boat, dragon boaters face forwards and paddle with one, freehand paddle
In terms of racing, dragon boat is not yet recognized as an Olympic sport but, it soon will be. For now, global championships are organized by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IBDF) and International Canoe Federation (ICF).
Typical race distances measure:
- 200m (1 min or less)
- 500m (2 min 30 sec)
- 1000m (5-6 min)
- 2000m (11-13 min)
The standard racing boat holds 22 people, but there are also small boats which hold 12 people (10 paddlers, 1 steersperson, 1 drummer).
The racing divisions include:
- Open: As the name implies, this boat is open to any gender participant. However, these boats are typically stacked with men.
- Mixed: Equal proportions of male/female participants.
- Women: Only women, including steersperson.
Additionally, these divisions are further categorized into Premier or Senior. Premier generally contains paddlers in their 20s and 30s, while Senior paddlers must be over the age of 40.
Note that, depending on the race, these rules and regulations may vary.
History of Dragon Boat
Dragon boating originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago along the banks of the Yangtze River (aka Yellow River).
Legend has it that Qu Yuan, beloved minister during the Warring States period, drowned himself in the river after being slandered by the Chu monarch. The people rushed into the water to search for his body, desperately racing their boats up and down the river. To protect Qu Yuan, they beat their drums and hit their paddles on the water to ward off evil spirits. They even threw rice into the water so that fish would not eat his body.
Qu Yuan was never found, but the practice of racing dragon boats up and down the river continues today in commemoration of his death.
Duanwu Festival: Dragon Boat Festival
The annual Duanwu Festival or, Dragon Boat Festival, occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month in the Lunar calendar (in today’s Gregorian calendar, this translates to late May/early June). This day not only marks the death anniversary of Qu Yuan, it also signifies the Summer solstice. The beginning of Summer marks the hottest time of the year in China, and “duan wu” translates to “the point at which the Sun is directly overhead.”
In the Chinese zodiac, the Dragon is seen as the ruler of all water on earth, including the rivers, rains, and oceans. Because it is very hot during Summer, the Chinese aim to appease the dragon so that he will bring rainfall for their crops. Thus, an annual Dragon Boat Festival takes place to venerate the dragon deity.
Duanwu Traditions & Customs
Awakening the Dragon: At the start of a dragon boat competition, a VIP is invited to “awaken the dragon” by dotting the eyes of the dragon boat’s head with a paintbrush. In doing so, the dragon’s spirit is re-energized and the race may begin.
Zongzi: This is a pyramid-shaped sticky rice dumpling, inspired by the rice which was thrown into the river for Qu Yuan. Friends and family eat it for good luck since it has the same pronunciation as “zhong,” a Chinese character used in positive phrases.
Realgar Wine: Like the rice, realgar wine was also poured into the river to poison monsters and protect Qu Yuan. Today, it is drank with a dose of powdered realgar, a yellow-orange arsenic sulfide mineral used to combat mosquito bites in the hot, Chinese summers.
Perfume Pouches: Due to summer heat, disease can easily proliferate. Therefore, small cloth bags filled with herbs and spices are carried on person or strung on door frames to keep germs and diseases away.
5-colored string bracelet: For good luck, a braided bracelet is worn with the colors green, white, red, yellow and black. These colors represent the 5 mysterious powers and, incidentally, the 5 types of Chinese tea! When the first rain of the season comes, people are meant to discard their bracelets and with it, the bad luck.
Importance of Dragon Boat
As you can see, dragon boat is more than just “fun, free, entertainment.” It’s a 2,500 year old tradition commemorating Qu Yuan, celebrating the Summer solstice, and welcoming a healthy harvest.
I am proud to paddle with my team, the Suncoast Asian Cultural Association (SACA) Golden Dragons. Our non-profit organization emphasizes the importance of family, and we spread awareness about diverse Asian cultures within the Tampa Bay community. My favorite event of the year is when we perform a traditional Dragon Dance for Lunar New Year.
In fact, you can catch another one of our Dragon Dance performances at the 2nd Sarasota Asian Cultural EXPO on May 11, 2019!
Of course, our organization is not Asian-exclusive, and we invite newcomers to try out the sport every other weekend through Meetup.
As someone who struggled with my cultural identity, dragon boat gave me a way to connect with something bigger than myself.
Because I paddle, I practice a tradition that is over 2 centuries old.
Because I paddle, I have a lifelong family.
Because I paddle, I fell in love.
As I continue to live and dragon boat in Tampa, I hope to bring more awareness about its cultural significance to the many talented paddlers at tomorrow’s race.
The Dragon Boat Festival is an official public holiday in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Take the day off and get in the water!