The Dragon Boat Festival(端午节, Duānwǔ Jié) in China is a 2,000 year old tradition that combines religious ceremony with political protest and herbal medicine. Thousands of years ago, people used dragon boats to perform ceremonial rituals to the rain gods. In 278 B.C., locals dropped rice balls(粽子，zòngzi) into the water to keep the fish away from the body of a poet named Qu Yuan（屈原， Qū Yuán）drowned himself in protest of the government. Parents give their children decorative pouches of dried herbs to wear and keep mosquitoes away. All of these ancient traditions are still part of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival at the start of Summer each year.
Outside of China, the dragon boat(龙舟, lóngzhōu) is the most iconic part of these traditions, so much so that dragon boat races are held in 100 countries around the world throughout the year. It's even being considered for an Olympic sport. How have modern athletes adapted the old Chinese custom of dragon boats into a competitive global sport with 50 million participants?
The Power of the Dragon
The dragon (龙, lóng) is the symbol of China, representing the long winding rivers and the male symbol of power, used by Emperors(皇帝, huángdì) throughout the dynasties. The dragon boat, therefore, moves quickly and powerfully through the water, propelled by the strength of many people.
The original dragon boats that were used in ceremonies were large and colorfully adorned with carvings and decorations(装饰, zhuāngshì). They could hold up to 50 people and had platforms where priests performed rituals. Such boats are still traditionally made in a few parts of China such as Luodian(罗店, Luódiàn) near Shanghai.
The modern dragon boat is a small thin boat that holds 10-20 people. It's designed to move quickly through the water with very little resistance. The dragon head and tail are often removed for practices and only added as a decoration for competitions.
The Essence of Teamwork
Chinese culture values the group over the individual and dragon boat racing is no different. The boat moves through the water fastest when all 10-20 people put their paddles in the water at the exact same time. The better the paddlers coordinate (协调, xiétiáo) their movements, the more successful they will be in a race.
Paddle All Year
The Dragon Boat Festival is held the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar (usually June). Now, Hong Kong has a separate festival dedicated to modern Dragon Boat Racing, with 200 international teams and 30,000 spectators (观众, guānzhòng).Teams train throughout the world, all year long. Even in countries dominated by ice and snow, people have found a way to embrace Dragon Boat Racing: they added skis to the boats! In cities like Harbin（哈尔滨, Hā’ěrbīn), China and Toronto (多伦多, Duōlúnduō), Canada, there are Dragon Boat Ice Races and festivals in the middle of Winter.
Many people in China look forward to eating zongzi and taking a short trip for the long weekend but the dragon remains the focus of the festival. This symbol of China and its people appeals to athletes and spectators everywhere, celebrating strength, speed, and grace on the water. And, just like China, the sport of Dragon Boat Racing continues to grow and adapt to a range of climates and cultures, forging connections across cultural boundaries by way of teamwork and friendly global competition.