Dragon occupies a very important postion in Chinese mythology. It shows up in arts, literature, poetry, architecture, songs, and many aspects of the Chinese conscience. The origin of Chinese dragons is unknown, but centainly pre-dates the written history.
The Chinese dragon boat races will always be a symbol of Chinese culture and spirit. As one of the three largest Chinese festivals of the year, this mythical celebration can now be witnessed around the world. To experience a dragon boat race - either watching or participating - is a thrill in itself and can be enjoyed by everyone.
You'll watch as long, multicoloured boats, with frightening dragons' heads, long tails, and scaley bodies, splash through the water. You'll see men, women, and children grunt and sweat as they push themselves harder and faster to be the first to the finish line. You'll hear the crowds screaming and cheering for their favourite team, while the drummers pound on their drums and yell at the paddlers. The event is not intended to be quiet and peaceful but loud and exciting - a celebration!
To observe the Chinese dragon boat races of today, you can only dream of its meagre beginnings. A time when superstition determined how a person lived. In fact, dragon boat racing began more than 2000 years ago when a group of superstitious people believed that the boat racing would ensure prosperous and bountiful crops. Their celebrations took place on the summer solstice - the time of year typically associated with disease and death and when man felt most helpless against the powers of nature. The race has come to symbolize both man's struggle against nature and his fight against dangerous enemies.
The tragic tale of Ch'u Yuan further integrated the dragon boat races into the lives of the Chinese. Fourth Century B.C.E. is known as the period of the "warring states" in Chinese history. It was a time when numerous supremacy wars between feudal lords erupted. Many kingdoms had already disappeared, except for Ch'u, which was one of the mightiest kingdoms remaining. Ch'u Yuan was a poet and a minister and councillor to the king of Ch'u - truly a great patriot. He feared for the future of his kingdom and to do the best for his country, he gave advice to the king. To his surprise, the advice was not accepted and he was exiled. At the devastation of the kingdom of Ch'u and his exile, Ch'u Yuan, in desperation and sorrow, threw himself into the Mi Lo river.
The people of Ch'u loved Ch'u Yuan. They grieved over his death and spent much time trying to scare the fish and water dragons away from Ch'u Yuan's body by rowing around the river in their fishing boats, splashing their oars, and beating their drums. And to ensure that Ch'u Yuan never went hungry, they wrapped rice in leaves and threw them into the river. Rice cakes are still eaten today as part of the dragon boat festival celebration.
The dragon boat festival is typically celebrated "the Fifth of the Fifth" - the fifth day of the fifth month. Red is the prominent colour on the boats because it is the colour of the number five and symbolizes heat, summer, and fire. The lengths of the boats can range between 30 and 100 feet but are wide enough to barely fit two people side by side. Some of the original rituals are still practiced today, like the "Awakening of the Dragon" by dotting the eyes of the dragon's head on each boat. This ceremony is conducted to cleanse and bless the area of the competition, the competitors, and their boats. It also gives the boats and their crew the strength of the Dragon and the blessing of the Goddess of the Sea.
Nevertheless, much has changed in the festival. The crowd no longer throws stones at the rival boats and it is not imperative a boat capsize and at least one person drown - which was considered a special sacrifice to the gods and was, surprisingly, a sign of good luck.
Today the dragon boat races are primarily a form of amusement. It is no longer a necessary ceremony performed to scare away evil and call for a good year but entertainment that teaches people a little about Chinese history and culture. We are not nearly as superstitious as we were in the past but it sure is fun pretending!