Dragon Boat racing has a significantly rich history, with traditional boating in Southern China for over 2000 years.

The Dragon

In Chinese culture, the classic Dragon (or “Loong”) rides the clouds in the sky and commands the wind, mist and rain.

The Chinese dragon is made up of many different types of animals on Earth. The dragon is said to have the head of a camel, 117 fish scales of the carp, deer horns, rabbit eyes, ears of a bull, the neck of a snake, stomach of a clam, paws of a tiger, and claws like an eagle.

The dragon symbolizes power and excellence, courage and boldness, heroism and perseverance, nobility and divinity. A dragon overcomes obstacles until success is his. He is energetic, decisive, optimistic, intelligent and ambitious.

The Dragon Boat

Originally Dragon Boat was used for religious purposes as a way to appease the rain gods. 

Each boat has an ornately carved dragon’s head at the bow and a tail in the stern. The boat is painted with scales. The paddles symbolically represent the dragon’s claws, the drum represents the heart. .

The Dragon Boat Festival

The traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Festival (also known as Tuen Ng, Duanwu, Double Fifth, Dumpling Festival or Poet’s Day) is held on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to middle June). It is celebrated not only as a festival but also a public holiday in the People's Republic of China.

The fifth Chinese lunar month is traditionally considered a month of death and disease, evil and darkness, due to the high summer temperatures in China.  Therefore, venerating the awakening Dragon was meant to avert misfortune and encourage rainfall, needed for the fertility of crops and prosperity of the people.  This annual celebration is meant to protect the people from evil & disease for the rest of the year.

The ‘Awaking the Dragon’ Ceremony

The ceremony called 'Awakening the Dragon' or 'Dotting of the Eye' traditionally involves a Taoist priest dotting the protruding eyes of the dragon head carved on the boats, thus ending its slumber.  The ceremony is practiced at many Dragon Boat events throughout the world today, sometimes with event dignitaries performing the 'dotting of the eye'. 

The‘Laying the Dragon to Rest’ Ceremony

Another tradition rarely practised nowadays involved the laying to rest of the boat at the end of the racing season. After the Dragon Boat Festival it was practice to sink the boats under water by loading them up with stones. As the dragon boats were made of teak and would often warp and crack with the changes in temperature and humidity, so once the head and tail were removed and the boats sat under water until raised and painted with a protective varnish, just before the next Dragon Boat Festival.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

One legend connected to the Dragon Boat Festival concerns a famous Chinese patriot poet names Qu Yuan.  He lived in the period called 'the Period of Warring States' (475-221BC) during which the area today known as China was torn into seven main states battling among themselves.

Qu Yuan was a minister who advocated reforms in his home state of Chu.  He was loyal to the Chu Emperor who fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who eventually managed to turn the king against him.  Qu Yuan was banished from the State of Chu he loved and wrote passionate poetry expressing his concerns for its future.

Struck by grief at the news that the State of Chu had been taken by the State of Qin in 278 BC, Qu Yuan grabbed a large rock and threw himself into the Mi Luo River. 

According to the legend, when news of his drowning became known, boats were launched by the local fishermen in a race to be first to recover Qu Yuan's body. Thus dragon boat racing was born. The furious splashing of paddles and banging of drums used these days to get the crews in time has it origin in the fishermen's bid to scare off fish and other river creatures from defiling his body.

On returning to shore, the dejected fishermen decided that if they had been better paddlers the outcome could have been different and thus they began to train.

To commemorate this sacrifice, the people began to organise Dragon Boat Festivals in his memory. Since then, dragon boat racing has become a major part of Chinese culture, representing patriotism and group integrity.

The Rice Dumplings

According to the legend, the fishermen began throwing rice into the river as an offering to Qu Yuan, so that his spirit could be nourished in the next world. But one night, Qu Yuan appeared in a dream to one of the fishermen, telling him that the fish were eating the rice offerings, that to prevent it, the rice ought to be wrapped in silk – later replaced by bamboo leaves (called Zongzi or Doongs) – to protect the offerings.

The practice of making offerings of Zongzi's is an extremely important part of the Festival. For the gourmet, it is encouraging to note that the culinary treat is still widely practised among Chinese communities all over the world.