Dragon boat race: a traditional Chinese water sport

A dragon boat race was held as a demonstration sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It is the first time for this ancient Chinese culture to present to the rest of the world.

Dragon boat racing is the most iconic element of the Dragon Boat Festival. The practice of this form of sport has been changed in modern society, and the young generation may hold different attitudes from the older generation about this. How the dragon boat race follows the trend of modern society?

Generally, dragon boat races last for the whole fifth lunar month, usually in May and June. The number of dragon boats in the race is usually based on the river’s width and the size of the boats. The traditional standard size dragon boat is about 28 meters long with 54 paddlers, a director, drummer, steersperson, and gong person. Nowadays, in many official dragon boat races, standard-sized dragon boats are more common, including 20 paddlers, a drummer, and a steer person.

In a traditional dragon boat race, people start training about a month before the festival (Photo: Weixian Ou)

What makes the dragon boats special is the pattern and figurehead. Only boats with dragon patterns and figureheads are allowed in the race. The figureheads represent the spirit of the team, crafted according to different gods of water.

“The most characteristic of dragon boats is the figurehead. Every village has its style of figurehead, which depends on which god of water the villagers worship. It is not random imagination. We live by the water. In ancient times, fishermen worshipped their gods before they started fishing. Fishermen today still do so,” said Rusong Zhan, former vice president of Folk Art Society of Zengcheng, Guangzhou, China.

“For example, the red face with black beard represents Hongsheng. The dragon without a beard represents goddess Tianhou. The dragon looks like a child, represents Nezha etc. In addition, the drum in the middle of the boat also has the name of the village. There is also a flag with the name of the village in dragon boat races.”

Tools of dragon boat race are collective properties of the village. They usually stored in the temple or administrative buildings (Photo: Weixian Ou)

Mr Zhan is 76 years old. He is from Xintang, Zengcheng, Guangzhou, China, a town located in the East River, a branch of the Pearl River, famous for dragon boat culture. He witnessed how this culture changed in the past decades and spent years studying his hometown’s folk culture.

Hongsheng, Beidi, Tianhou are three gods of water in southern China. Temple alongside rivers and sea is dedicated to them.

Located near the South China Sea and crowed with rivers and lakes, Guangdong has developed a special preference for Beidi (also named Xuanwu or Zhenwu), the God of Water. In Guangdong, the proliferation of the Beidi temple showed people’s admiration for his great power, and most households set up spirit tablets and offered sacrifices to him. Beidi temples were then the most popular places of worship in Guangdong.

Tianhou, also named Mazu, is a goddess worshipped by the people of the southeast coast of China. In ancient times, people would worship her before sailing. Mazu was a real person who was born in 960 and died in 987. People deified her because she fought against invaders and privates as well as building infrastructure to prevent floods. She is a symbol of kindness, bravery, selfish unselfishness.

Hongsheng is the god of the south sea, worshipped primarily in Southeast China. He was a part of the god of fire and was able to control rains and winds. People believe that worshipped him can prevent natural disasters such as floods, storms and drought.

However, some places have different gods to worship. Those gods may not be related to water, but most are gods of ancient Chinese myths or historical figures.

“A village named Dongzhou worships Empyrean Fairy, just as Athena, a goddess associated with wisdom and warfare. Another village named Shixia worshipped a child god called Nezha whose superpower is using fire and preventing epidemic,” said Mr Zhan

“The Dragon Boat Festival of the East River lasts for 18 days in the fifth lunar month and is celebrated widely in Guangzhou and Dongguang. During this period, towns and villages alongside the river have a different date for celebration,” said Mr Zhan.

Traditionally, dragon boats and paddlers are made of pine. These kinds of dragon boats are heavy and firm. After the festival, people store the boats in the riverbed with mud and dig them out next year. The paddlers are store in the temple of the villages. Before the dragon boat race, people will clean, refurbished and coloured the dragon boat, making it look like a new one. This process is called “rising the dragon boat”.

“When I was a boy, I would be very excited when people rose the dragon boats up because the elderly said boys who rose the dragon boats would be healthy and strong. So, all boys would follow adults to the riverbed, take off their clothes, and put mud from the dragon boats onto their bodies. We looked like mud dolls,” said Mr Zhan.

The next step is “collecting green”. People put some green leaves and grass into the dragon figurehead’s mouth, then fire firecracker and finally burn ghost money. This ritual is to pray for safety and health for dragon boat paddlers.

The ritual of “collecting green” is normally done by male elders

Although there are sophisticated methods to keep the dragon boat, it also should be replaced by a new one. Building a dragon boat should be a half-year ahead of the festival. A ” lucky day ” should be selected according to the lunar calendar, no matter starting to build a dragon boat or putting the boat onto the river. A “lucky day” should be selected according to the lunar calendar. Some villages even row their boats to the Nanhai God Temple to worship the water god in this area.

Nanhai God Temple is also named South Sea God Temple and Boluo Temple. The temple’s god was a combination of the west and the east, and because Boluo is a word from the western world.

“Before the Nanhai God Temple is only for Chinese god. In the past hundreds of years, people from southeast China have interacted more with foreign countries, and some regions overseas began to spread here. Generally, the region localized in China, which shows Chinese culture is very conclusive,” said Mr Zhan.

The Dragon Boat Festival in the Zengcheng district is one of the grandest celebrations. In the 2010 Asian Games, Zengcheng was the competition area for the international dragon boat race. In a non-official dragon boat race, the government, companies, and individuals sponsor the dragon boat championship.

Companies and individuals who sponsored the race will have their names on a large red paper pasted in the most noticeable place, such as the village council building. Some companies can even sponsor an entire dragon boat team with a flag of the companies on the boats.

“It is a good way to encourage the public to get involved in the traditional festival. And this festival is about unity, harmony and endeavour, so it is much more meaningful when people work together.”

In ancient times, only men could participate in the dragon boat race, and women could not even touch the dragon boats because it was believed unlucky. But now, women not only can get on the dragon boat, but they even can also have their dragon boat team.

“Society is developing. The involvement of women can help to pass on the dragon boat better,” said Mr Zhan

In the past, people only practice dragon boat races during the festive period. Now it is more viewed as a kind of sport, so people have dragon boat training whenever.

Weixian Ou is a member Folk Art Society of Guangzhou, a dragon boat paddler. He is from Ganyong village, Xintang, Zengcheng, Guangzhou. As a young paddler, he thinks dragon boating is more than a traditional ritual practised in the festive period.

“Nowadays, we have dragon boat training as a hobby,” said Weixian Ou.

“Many dragon boats and paddlers are now made in carbon fibre which is lighter and tougher. But in the traditional dragon boat race, we still use pine wood dragon boats.”

Moreover, the Dragon Boat Festive is not just about dragon boat races. And it is also a festival for families and friends to get together.

Today, members of a dragon boat team may come from different villages. (Photo: Weixian Ou)

On the day of the festival, the host village invites the neighbouring villages to take part in its dragon boat race and relatives and friends from other places to have a feast at their home and watch dragon boat races. During that time, tables are put on the streets because guests are too many to have meals indoors.

The host village prepares “dragon boat rice” for everyone who comes. The cuisine is made of rice, beans, pork, squid, mushroom, shrimp, and chopped fried egg. It means paddlers will row the boats with concerted effort, and kids who have the rice will be strong and tall to have enough strength to paddle the dragon boat when they grow up.

Although many people have festive meals in restaurants, it still works as a bridge for getting together. It is the most important festival for people to reunite second to the Spring Festival.

The history of dragon boat races dates back to the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476 BC) in the states of Wu and Yue, which were located in the Yangtze region. The customs then spread to the south of the Yangtze river where there are many rivers and ponds.

People in ancient times suffered a lot from natural disasters as frequent heavy rains in summer often caused floods and landslides. In the fifth month, the heavy rains called “dragon rain” are in the southern part, and people believe dragons are coming out of the water this month.

The dragon is an auspicious animal in ancient China, which is a symbol of royalty. According to ancient Chinese myths, dragons are born in water and control rain, rivers, and the sea. It is a totem of ancient tribes of southern China. They believed dragons could ward off evil spirits, avert disaster and bring good luck for the believers. So, they crafted a pattern of a dragon on their boats to visit their friends and family. Sometimes they would race for fun. Generally, it has become a festival.

In Dragon Boat Festival, people greet each other by saying ‘stay healthy in Dragon Boat Festival’ instead of ‘happy Dragon Boat Festival’ because they think it is inappropriate to be happy when bad luck comes.

With the development of technology and education, young generations have different ways to pass on this culture. The members of a dragon boat team are no longer limited within a village.

Weixian Ou is a member of the East River Dragon Boat Club, he is from the city of Guangzhou, but in their club, many members are from Dongguang.

“In the past, during the festive period, when we heard the sound of gongs, we knew it was time to go dragon boat training. But now people are busy. We cannot always stay in the village. So, we have a group on WeChat. Members who have free time can always row the boats,” said Weixian.

Besides, they began to study and record these customs with new technology.

“Before, we just knew different places have different dates of the Dragon Boat Festive. But we don’t know why.”

“After studying the tide of the East River, and we found out when the tide reaches the peak in a certain area, that is the date of the festival of the place,” said Weixian.

They also have an official account on Wechat to release articles, pictures and videos about the dragon boat culture. Mr Zhan is pleased to see these young people love this culture so much. He said: “In the past, I taught them about our traditional culture, and now they can teach me back!”

“There must be a reason for this culture to be passed on for thousands of years. The development and inheritance of the dragon boat culture need joint effort both people and the authority.”