Dragons Across the Water

The boats skim smoothly across the water as a drummer sets the cadence. Oars push the boat headlong through the water at speeds exceeding four meters per second. Over the past 2000 years, Dragon Boat Racing has spread across the world.

Hidden in legend and folklore is the origin of the race, but the common tale is the tragic legend of Qu Yuan (c. 340 to 278 B.C.) born in China during a time of great political changes. He was well liked by the people and, at one time, was a minister to the king. After falling from favor, he was expelled from his position. He wandered the countryside writing poetry and lamenting the state of his home. His despair grew to a point that he could no longer go on, and, while grasping a large rock, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River and drowned. In a desperate attempt to prevent the fish from consuming his body, the people raced out to the spot Qu Yuan vanished and began hitting the water with their oars and throwing glutinous rice balls into the water.

Since this tragic beginning, the Tuen Ng Festival (held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month) has become a riotous event. In Hong Kong, it is a national holiday rivaled only by the New Year. Dragon Boating events have been held throughout China and South East Asia for over 2000 years, and have spread through the rest of the world like wildfire in a short 20 years. The 4th International Dragon Boat Race held in Philadelphia, PA hosted over 2,000 participants from 22 countries.

Each boating team is made of 20 members sitting in pairs including a drummer and a steersman. The drummer beats the pace for the oarsmen and women. Dipping their oars into the water with precision and timing will bring the team to the finish line in less than 3 minutes on a 650-meter course.

Designed in the form of a dragon, each boat has a head at the bow and a tail at the stern. They range in size from 12 to 27 meters in length (most today are 12 meters) and weigh over 1500 pounds. The head and tail are attached to each hull only during the festival, and kept out of the weather the rest of the year. Once attached, a Taoist Priest awakens the dragon by dotting its eyes with red paint. All the while, firecrackers explode and incense burns insuring the blessing of the Gods.

On shore, patrons cheer each team on while feasting on Zongzi. Zongzi is a traditional dish representative of the rice balls that the people threw into the river to distract the fish from Qu Yuan’s body. It is made of glutinous rice, ham, beans, bean paste, and vegetables, all wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Dragon Boat Racing is an event to see first hand. To witness this tradition is to see two thousand years of history come to life.

Originally published in “ThingsAsian”

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