The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most spectacular traditions of ancient China. It is an exciting period for rowing competitions marked by the eating of rice dumpling. In some Chinese-speaking societies, the day is also known as the “Poets’ Day”.
The Legend behind the Dragon Boat Festival embodies the story of love and service for one’s country. About 2300 years ago, during the Warring States period, a well-respected poet and statesmen named “Qu Yuan” lived in the Chinese Kingdom of Chu and served the government with integrity as Minister of State. He was disturbed by the corruption and by the court intrigues of many courtiers who resented his talent, popularity and sense of righteousness. One version said that other officials convinced the Emperor that Qu Yuan was corrupt, that his plea for reforms be ignored and had him banished from the Kingdom.
For years, he wandered the countryside composing poems expressing his patriotism and love for the people. Either as an act of despair or an ultimate protest against the corrupt government, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mei Lo river (in today’s Hunan province) on the fifth day of the fifth month in the year 278 B.C. Qu Yuan opted to commit suicide rather than lose face and honour by serving a corrupt government.
He composed two famous poems known as “Ai Ying” and “Huai Sha” before jumping into the river with a large stone tied to himself. Grief-stricken local fishermen who witnessed Qu Yuan’s desperate act, tried to save the patriotic poet. They sailed up and down the river to look for him and desperately thrashed the water with their oars and paddles to scare off the hungry fishes which might eat his body. To commemorate the patriotic man, the fishermen and rural town folks threw cooked rice dumplings wrapped in silk or banana leaves, into the water in order to appease the spirits of the river on his death anniversary. These rice dumplings are called “Tsung Tze” or “Ma Chang”.
The first Dragon Boat Races were recorded in the Tsin period. It became popular in the Tang Dynasty ( 618-907 A.D.) spreading throughout the Yangtze River Valley and to most of South China. One paddler traditionally stands in the boat searching for Qu Yuan’s body while a drummer on board and the ferocious-looking dragon designs were added to frighten away evil water spirits. This is because Chinese people traditionally regarded the dragons as presiding over the water and having dominion over rainfall. It is also the supreme symbol of power and benevolence in the Far East. In the present day, the Dragon Boat Festical is held annually in different nations world wide. In China alone, 20 million people are active in this sport which is organised in the various cities and provinces.
TRADITIONAL RITES ASSOCIATED WITH DRAGON BOAT RACING
The ritual aspect of dragon boat racing has a deep cultural heritage and springs from religious beliefs. The colourful and traditional rites are preformed on the dragon boats before and after the races. They reflect deep reverence for the vessels despite certain degrees of variation in the procedures followed by the believers.
There are basically two important ceremonies which have to be performed for dragon boats. They have to be blessed and “awakened” before the races and then properly induced to “repose” afterwards. Four days before the festival, the dragon boats are taken out of their storage yard and their dragon heads and dragon tails are attached to them. A benediction ritual done with great pomp and ceremony follows this and involves the burning of paper bills in front of the dragon boats, the making of offerings and chanting of prayers to heavenly gods. This ritual serves to ward off evil and to sanctify and bless the dragon boats. In addition, this action is supposed to make the dragon boats strong and fierce and therefore fit to compete in the exciting races.
When this has been done, each dragon boat is rowed out to sea, on a course perpendicular to the nearby temple and then back to the temple with the drummer beating the drum. This procedure is repeated three times. The performance of these rituals and the staging of dragon boats races show a community’s dedication to its gods. In return, the members of the community will be protected from unfriendly spirits of the sea and blessed with happiness and prosperity.
“Life” is given to a newly-built dragon boat at a ceremony performed by a Taoist priest a few days before the actual festival. Holding a bell and a sword into the “Fu Zhou” (a paper bill with “magic” words) while chanting some “magic” words, he then touches the dragon head, tail and drum with the sword, following which paper money is burnt and “magic” sand is sprinkled on the dragon head. A community leader is invited to dot the eye of the dragon head and, afterwards, the dragon’s eyes will be drawn in red with a brush.
When the races are over, the dragon head, tail and drum are removed from each dragon boat and stored either in the temple or in another place agreed upon by the community. Incense is burnt to thank the heavenly gods. Meanwhile, the body of a dragon boat itself is usually covered with sand along the shore near a temple or put on appropriate racks and covered with roof-shape tin foil covers. By performing these basic procedures, the dragon boats are considered to be properly induced to “repose” until the next Dragon Boat Festival when the whole cycle of ceremonial rites will be repeated.