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The Dragon-Boat Regatta

Luo Qian

According to the Dragon-Boat Association of China, several hundred top oarsmen from throughout the country will take part in the Ninth Qu Yuan Cup to be held from August 5 to 10. The race is named for a beloved patriotic poet who lived in this part of China some 2,000 years ago and took his own life by jumping into the river.

The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The boats incorporate a dragon head and tail, are decorated with paintings and flags, and carry gongs and drums. The head is usually carved from a single block of wood and put in place just before the race. The tail is also formed from single block and characteristically emphasizes the mythical creature's scales.

In his History of the Dragon Boat Festival, Wen Yiduo postulates that the Wuyue people who inhabited present-day Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces made sacrifices at the time of the festival, and that the race was a combination of religion and entertainment. This was a time to pray for rain and reprieve from bad fortune and illness. The ancient Chinese were very dependent on agriculture and therefore felt awe and respect for the dragon, who was thought to control water.

As a way of supplicating the dragon, people decorated their boats with ornate heads, scaly bodies, and powerful feet. In this way, they showed that they were descendants of the dragon. Others hold that the dragon-boat regatta originated in the state of Chu during the Zhou Dynasty as a way of commemorating Qu Yuan.

The regatta itself varies from place to place. In eastern Guangdong Province, people paint and decorate their dragon boats after spring transplanting, train for a period of time and hold public performances in different villages during the first three weeks of the fifth lunar month. On the day of the regatta, the participants arrive early in the morning as spectators in colorful garb line the riverbank. Women who have come to cheer for their local rowers bring firecrackers, sweets, cigarettes and beer, and will row out to greet the boats before the races start.

Around Lianjiang in eastern Fujian Province, dragon-boats are launched on the last day of the fourth lunar month. The boats are decorated and paraded through the streets, and in a kind of benediction, people spray water on them -- the more the better.

Several minority groups also observe the festival. The Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the Dai in Yunnan Province and the Miao in Guizhou Province all hold grand dragon-boat races. The Miao in particular believe that the race helps guarantee the success of their spring transplanting. Horse races and bullfights are also held at this time. Families brew rice wine, make pyramid-shaped dumplings of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, prepare sumptuous feasts, entertain friends and visit relatives. The young sing and dance to tunes played on reed pipes, orns and flutes. Today, it is not uncommon to talk business and promote investment at this auspicious time of year.

The Miluo River dragon-boat regatta is especially unique. Every family is expected to contribute materials or money. Stealing wood for the boats is a tradition, since it is said that wood obtained from swift-footed thieves will produce a fast boat. This has become so accepted that people who have their wood stolen don't really mind. On the first day of the festival, the captain will take the carved dragon head and accompanied by his crew, go to the temple to place it before the Qu Yuan altar, burn incense and pray. The temple itself becomes a joyful place, with firecrackers going off and music filling the air. The head of the temple will drape a piece of red silk around the dragon head to bring the boat good luck in the race.

In 1984, the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission listed the dragon-boat regatta as an official nationwide competition subject to standardized procedures. In June 1985, to promote the development of dragon-boat races in China and abroad, the Dragon-Boat Association of China was founded in Yichang, Hubei Province.

Dragon-boat racing has now become an international sport. The Chinese government has hosted eight Qu Yuan Cups, the first Yanhuang Cup (an international competition),the first Asian Dragon-Boat Championship, and many invitational races. More than 20 international races have been held in China. In June 1995, the first International Championship was held in Yueyang, the spot where Qu Yuan committed suicide. More than 1,000 rowers on 37 dragon-boats from 14 countries and regions including Canada, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States took part in the competition. China's Guangdong Shunde Dragon-Boat Team and the Hunan Yueyang Dragon-Boat Team together won nine gold medals.

In June 1997, the Guangdong Doumen Women's Team took yet another gold medal in the Second International Dragon-Boat Championship held in Hong Kong. The Third International Dragon-Boat Championship will be hosted by the United Kingdom in 1999, the first time the championship is to be held outside of China. It proves that dragon-boat racing has become truly international.

from China Today

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