The Origins of Dragon Boat Racing

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a painting of the poet qu yuan More than 2000 years ago in the Chinese Kingdom of Chu, there lived a poet-statesman called Qu Yuan. He was an honest man who was dearly loved by the people. The government of the kingdom of Chu was corrupt one and many of the courtiers resented Qu Yuan's talent, his sense of righteousness and his popularity. They finally convinced the Emperor that it was in fact Qu Yuan who was a corrupt influence, and he was banished from the kingdom.

For many years after, Qu Yuan wandered the countryside composing poems about his love for the people until one day, perhaps unable to bear his sorrow any longer, or maybe as a final protest against the corrupt government of the time, he threw himself into the MiLuo River.

Zhong-zi, rice dumplings wrapped in palm leavesLocal fishermen who witnessed this desperate act dashed to their boats and attempted to rescue Qu Yuan, but were unsuccessful. They beat the water furiously with their paddles to prevent the hungry fish from eating the poet's body. As a sacrifice to his spirit rice dumplings wrapped in silk were thrown into the river.

The tragic death of Qu Yuan is commemorated each year on the fifth day of the fifth moon when the fishermen's frantic attempt to save the poet is re-enacted in the form of dragon boat races. In keeping with the legend rice cakes are made, but instead of being thrown into the water they are enjoyed by everyone.

It is not clear how the actual dragon-head and tail came into being - it is unlikely that the original boats used to try to save Qu Yuan were similarly decorated - it is thought that during the evolution of the races over the years, the fierce-looking dragon-heads were added to ward off evil water spirits.

SA team, 2nd World Champs, Hong Kong 1997

Modern dragon-boat crews consist of 22 people: 20 paddlers, a steersman ("sweep")
and a drummer who keeps time for the rest of the crew and encourages their efforts.

There are larger dragon boats which hold crews of 52 or even 104, as well as "baby dragons" with 10 paddlers.

Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, Southern China

Dragon Boat racing is central to Chinese culture and is steeped in ancient rituals and
religious traditions that have been observed uninterrupted for more than 25 centuries.

4 helms, 2 at either end; it is easier to get the paddlers to turn round in their seats than to turn the boat around.

Dragon Boating must be the world's oldest organised continuous competitive activity, pre-dating the Olympic Games of ancient Greece by at least a thousand years. Proof of this claim can be found at the Qu Jialing cultural ruins in Hubei Province, where a drawing of a dragon boat race on a spinning wheel was unearthed that was between 4000 and 5000 years old. Other artefacts, such as the steering oars used in dragon boating, along with patterns of a dragon dated at over 7000 years old have been excavated in other parts of China. As far as we know, Dragon Boats served no dedicated utilitarian or military purpose but ancient Chinese generals once used dragon boat paddling as a fitness and training exercise for soldiers.

It is currently estimated that dragon boating has developed to the point where over 50 million people in nearly 60 countries world wide participate in dragon boat competitions around the globe. The majority race in China and South East Asia, with over 150,000 estimated participants in Europe; 90,000 in North America and 20,000 in Oceania.

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