Photo Documentary: The Dragonboat Legends of the Qin-Village
Dragon Boats & Stories
Dragon Boats & Stories
A dragon boat (also dragonboat) is a human-powered watercraft traditionally made in the Pearl River Delta region of China’s southern Guangdong Province out of teak wood to various designs and sizes. In other parts of China different woods are used to build these traditional watercraft. It is one of a family of Traditional Paddled Long Boats found throughout Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. Currently, boats are being made, for competitive purposes, out of carbon fiber and other light materials. Dragonboats are the basis of the team paddlingsport of dragon boat racing an amateur watersport which has its roots in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers held over the past 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 inancient 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 training the decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for practice by drummers.
Dragon boat races are traditionally held as part of the annual Duanwu Festival or Duen Ng observance in China. 19th-century European observers of the racing ritual, not understanding the significance of Duanwu, 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 significant populations of ethnic Chinese living there e.g. Singapore, Malaysia, Riau Islands and Greater China. The date is referred to as the “double fifth” since Duanwu is reckoned as the fifth day of the fifth lunar calendar, which often falls on the Gregorian calendar month of June, but also, rarely, in May or July. This is because 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. Christian Easter is another example of lunar-based calendar and date reckoning.
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 observed in the People’s Republic of China, such is the importance of dragonboating in China today.
Similar to outrigger canoe (va’a) racing but unlike competitive rowing and canoe racing, dragon boating has a rich fabric of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious traditions. In other words, the modern competitive aspect is but one small part of this complex of water craftsmanship. The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists and anthropologists – for example George Worcester, authoritative author of ‘Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River’ – to have originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of such iconic rivers as the Chang Jiang, also known as Yangtze (that is, during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia). Dragon boat racing as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations, and for the traditional veneration of the Asian dragon water deity, has been practiced continuously since this period. The celebration is an important part of ancient agricultural Chinese society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing activity historically was situated in the Chinese sub-continent’s southern-central “rice bowl”: where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats. dragon boating is mostly celebrated in china
Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese zodiac, only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical (Dog, Rat, Tiger, Horse, Snake, Rabbit, Rooster, Monkey, Goat, Ox, Pig), yet all twelve of these zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. In China, dragons are traditionally believed to be the rulers of rivers, lakes and seas (so water) and to dominate the clouds, mists and rains which are of heaven. 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.
It is believed sacrifices through drowning may have been involved in the earliest boat racing rituals. During these ancient times, violent clashes between the crew members of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo stalks. Originally, paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water could receive no assistance from the onlookers as their misfortune was considered to be the will of the Dragon Deity which could not be interfered with. Those boaters who drowned were thought to have been sacrificed. That Qu Yuan sacrificed himself in protest through drowning speaks to this early notion. Furthermore, when rice seedlings are first planted, they are ‘drowned’ in rice paddies and eventually transplanted to be harvested later.
Dragon boat racing traditionally 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.
This hot season is also associated with pestilence and disease, so is considered as a period of evil due to the high summer temperatures which can lead to rot and putrification in primitive societies lacking modern refrigeration and sanitation facilities. One custom involves cutting shapes of the five poisonous or venomous animals out of red paper, so as to ward off these evils. The paper snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards and toads – those that supposedly lured “evil spirits” – where sometimes placed in the mouths of the carved wooden dragons.
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.