A dragon boat is a human-powered watercraft. They were traditionally made in the Pearl River Delta region of China’s southern Guangdong Province out of teak wood (mostly imported from Pontianak, Indonesia) to various designs and sizes. In other parts of China, different kinds of wood are used to build these traditional watercraft. It is one of a family of traditional paddled long boats found throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and also Puerto Rico. Currently, boats are being made for competitive purposes out of carbon fiber and other lightweight materials.
Dragon boats are the basis of the team paddling sport of dragon boat racing, a watersport which has its roots in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers, which has been held for over 2000 years throughout southern China. While competition has taken place annually for more than 20 centuries as part of religious ceremonies and folk customs, dragon boat racing has emerged in modern times as an international sport, beginning in Hong Kong in 1976. But the history of dragon boats in competition reaches as far back as the same era as the original games of Olympia in ancient Greece. Both dragon boat racing and the ancient Olympiad included aspects of religious observances and community celebrations along with competition.
For competition events, dragon boats are generally rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. At other times (such as during training), decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for drummers to practice.
Dragon boat races were traditionally held as part of the annual Duanwu Festival or Duen Ng observance in China. Not understanding the significance of Duanwu, 19th-century European observers of the racing ritual referred to the spectacle as a “dragon boat festival”. This is the term that has become known in the West.
Dragon boat racing, like Duanwu, is observed and celebrated in many areas of east Asia with a significant population of ethnic Chinese such as Singapore, Malaysia, and the Riau Islands, as well as having been adopted by the Ryukyu Islands since ancient times. The date on which races were held is referred to as the “double fifth” since Duanwu is reckoned as the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which often falls on the Gregorian calendar month of June and occasionally in May or July. Duanwu is reckoned annually in accordance with the traditional calendar system of China, which is a combination of solar and lunar cycles, unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar system.
In December 2007, the central government of the People’s Republic of China added Duanwu, along with Qingming and Mid-Autumn festivals, to the schedule of national holidays.
Similar to the use of outrigger canoes or Polynesian va’a, racing dragon boating has a rich fabric of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious traditions, and thus, the modern competitive aspect is but one small part of this complex water craftsmanship. The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists, and anthropologists to have originated in southern central China more than 2500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of the Chang Jiang (now called the Yangtze) during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia). Dragon boat racing has been practiced continuously since this period as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations and for the traditional veneration of the Chinese dragon water deity. The celebration was an important part of the ancient Chinese agricultural society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing was historically situated in the Chinese subcontinent’s southern-central “rice bowl”; where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats.
Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese zodiac, only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical animals, yet all twelve of the zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. Dragons were traditionally believed to be the rulers of water on earth: rivers, lakes, and seas; they also were thought to dominate the waters of the heavens: clouds, mists, and rains. There are earth dragons, mountain dragons, and sky or celestial dragons (Tian Long) in Chinese tradition. Mythical dragons and serpents are also found widely in many cultures around the world.
Traditional dragon boat racing, in China, coincides with the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to June on the modern Gregorian Calendar). The Summer Solstice occurs around 21 June and is the reason why Chinese refer to their festival as “Duan Wu” or “Duen Ng”. Both the sun and the dragon are considered to be male. (The moon and the mythical phoenix are considered to be female.) The sun and the dragon are at their most potent during this time of the year, so cause for observing this through ritual celebrations such as dragon boat racing. It is also the time of farming year when rice seedlings must be transplanted in their paddy fields, for wet rice cultivation to take place. Wu or Ng refers to the sun at its highest position in the sky during the day, the meridian of ‘high noon’. Duan or Duen refers to upright or directly overhead. So Duan Wu is an ancient reference to the maximum position of the sun in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year or summer solstice.
Venerating the dragon deity was meant to avert misfortune and calamity and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and thus for the prosperity of an agrarian way of life. Celestial dragons were the controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds and the clouds. The Emperor was “The Dragon” or the “Son of Heaven”, and Chinese people refer to themselves as “dragons” because of its spirit of strength and vitality. Unlike the dragons in European mythology which are considered to be evil and demonic, Asian dragons are regarded as wholesome and beneficent, and thus worthy of veneration, not slaying. But if rainfall is insufficient drought and famine can result. Dragon veneration in China seems to be associated with annually ensuring life giving water and bountiful rice harvests in south central China.
Another ritual called Awakening of the Dragon involves a Daoist priest dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber and re-energising its spirit or qi (pronounced: chee). In modern dragon boat festivals a representative can be invited to step forward to dot the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint.
The main legend concerns the poignant saga of a Chinese court official named Qu Yuan, also phoneticised Ch’u Yuen. Qu Yuan is popularly regarded as a minister in one of the Warring State governments, the southern state of Chu (present day Hunan and Hubei provinces), a champion of political loyalty and integrity, and eager to maintain the Chu state’s autonomy and hegemony. Formerly, it was believed that the Chu monarch fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan as ‘a sting in flesh’, and therefore the fooled king banished Qu, his most loyal counsellor.
In the year 278 B.C., upon learning of the upcoming devastation of his state from invasion by a neighbouring Warring State (Qin in particular), Qu is said to have waded into the Miluo river which drains into Dongting Hu (lake) in today’s Hunan Province—near the provincial capital city of Changsha and south of the city of Yueyang on Donting Hu, site of the first IDBF World Dragon Boat Championship in 1996—holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era.
The common people, upon learning of his suicide, rushed out on the water in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save Qu Yuan. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. Later on, they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger. Another belief is that the people scattered rice to feed the fish, in order to prevent them from devouring the poet’s body.
However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends (that is, he resurrected from the dead) and told them that the rice meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since known as zongzi or sticky rice wrapped in leaves, although they are wrapped in leaves instead of silk. In commemoration of Qu Yuan, it is said, people hold dragon boat races annually on the day of his death.
Today, dragon boat festivals continue to be celebrated around the world with dragon boat racing. These events are still culturally associated with the traditional Chinese Duen Ng Festival in Hong Kong (Cantonese Chinese dialect) or Duan Wu festival in south central mainland China (Mandarin Chinese dialect).
A dragon boat maneuvering into position prior to a race in Darling Harbour, New South Wales
The crew of a standard dragon boat is typically 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, 1 drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 sweep (a steerer) standing at the rear of the boat. Dragon boats however vary in length and the crew size will change accordingly, from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers up to the traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and sweep.
The pulsation of the drum beats produced by the drummer may be considered the “heartbeat” of the dragon boat. The drummer leads the paddlers throughout a race using the rhythmic drum beat to indicate the frequency and synchronicity of all the paddlers’ strokes (that is, the cadence, picking up or accelerating the pace, slowing the rate, etc.) The drummer may issue commands to the crew through a combination of hand signals and voice calls, and also generally exhorts the crew to perform at their peak. A drummer is mandatory during racing events, but if he or she is not present during training, it is typical for the sweep to direct the crew. The drummer’s role is both tactical and ceremonial. In official competitions, such as the world championship, drummers must physically beat the drum or the team could be given a time penalty. In other events or practices an experienced team may not actually use the drum as they can paddle together naturally without listening to a beat.
Good drummers should be able to synchronise their drumming with the strokes of the leading pair of paddlers, rather than the other way around.
The paddlers sit facing forwards in the boat, and use a specific type of paddle which, (unlike rowing sweep, or scull), is not rigged to the racing watercraft in any way. Therefore, Dragon boaters are paddlers not rowers or oarsmen/women.
The paddle now accepted by the world racing federation has a standardised, fixed blade surface area and distinctive shape derived from the paddle shapes characteristic of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) delta region of Guangdong Province, China, close to where Hong Kong is situated. The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) Paddle Specification 202a (PS202a) pattern blade has straight flared edges and circular arced shoulders based geometrically on an equilateral triangle shape positioned between the blade face and the neck of the shaft.
The first pair of paddlers, called “pacers,” “strokes” or “timers,” set the pace for the team and are responsible for synchronising their strokes with one another. It is critical that all paddlers are synchronised. Each paddler should synchronise with the stroke or pacer on the opposite side of the boat, that is, if you paddle starboard side (right) you would take your timing from the port side (left) stroke. The direction of the dragon boat is set by the sweep, rather than by the paddlers while actually racing, however for docking and other manoeuvres, individual paddlers may be asked to paddle (while others either stop the boat or rest) according to the commands given by the drummer or sweep.
There are several components to a dragon boat stroke cycle:
1. The “reach and catch” begins the cycle and is preceded by a set-up torso rotation.
2. The powerful “pull” stage sustains the forward momentum of the boat; the paddle is pulled backwards.
3. The “release” in which the blade is instantaneously drawn (skywards) while it is even with the hips of the paddler; because the boat is moving forward, the optical illusion from outside the boat makes the blade seem like it is being withdrawn at an angle that is raked forward. The release coincides with the set up rotation or recoil of the torso.
4. The “recovery” is the final stage of the stroke and consists of the rotation of the torso with the forward repositioning of the blade thrust forward into the optimal catch.
Every team has different techniques in the way that they order these strokes. They can also be named in different ways as well. For example, some teams may start their stroke with the recovery and make this the most important part of the stroke. Some teams will call their recovery “feathering” so that it is very light and quick in order to enter into the water quicker, and thus paddling faster.
Very experienced paddlers sense the response of the boat to the application of their blades and the associated surging forward acceleration or deceleration during a prolonged recovery phase through the water via their senses as they sit braced into the boat sitting on the benches of the boat, and will continually adjust or tune their reach and catch of their blade tips in accordance with the power required to maintain continual acceleration of the hull through the water at any given moment, since boats seek to decelerate whenever propulsive power drops off.
The sweep, known also as the steersman, steers the dragon boat with a sweep oar rigged at the rear of the boat, generally on the left side. This is done by using the oar as a rudder, while the boat is moving, or by sweeping the stern of the boat sideways by pulling or pushing water with the oar as the boat is moving slowly or stationary.
The sweep must constantly be aware of the boat’s surroundings. Since the sweep is the only person in the boat who is able to control the boat looking forward (the drummer is seated facing backward) he or she has the obligation to override the caller at any time during the race (or the coach during practice) if the safety of the crew is threatened in any way such as an impending collision with another boat or a fixed or floating obstruction in the water.