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The history of Dragon Boad Racing:
An Ancient Legend - Fertility Rites & a Poetic Sacrifice
Myth and legend surround the history of dragon boat racing. It all began more than 2,000 years ago on the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in the valleys southern China as a fertility rite performed to ensure bountiful crops. The first participants held their festivities on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar - what the western world calls the summer solstice. The race was held to avert misfortune and to encourage the rains needed for prosperity. It was also an occasion of sacrifice to the river folk's water deity, the Dragon.
The most venerated of the Chinese zodiac figures, the dragon of Asian is a beneficent creature, unlike its European counterpart. It had traditionally been a symbol of water and is said to rule the rivers and the seas and dominate the clouds and rains. The first races were meant to be mock dragon battles stage to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Sacrifices, sometimes human, were made to this being. Even much later, when a rower or an entire team fell into the water they would receive no assistance because it was believed to be wrong to interfere with the will of the gods.
Over the centuries a second story was integrated to give the celebrations a dual meaning. Chinese history describes the fourth century B.C. as the Warring States period; it was a time of shifting alliances and much treachery. In a kingdom called Chu, there lived a great patriot and poet by the name of Qu Yuan. He championed political reform and truth and was much beloved of the people. The king, who had fallen under the influence of corrupt ministers, banished the poet from the kingdom. Wandering the countryside, Qu Yuan composed some of China's greatest poetry expressing his fervent love for his country and his deep concern for her future. Upon learning of Chu's ruin at the hands of a rival kingdom, he leaped into the Mi Lo River, clutching a heavy rock.
The people loved Qu Yuan very much and raced out in their fish boats in a vain attempt to save him. They beat on drums and splashed their oars in the water trying to keep the fish and water dragons away from his body. In the years following his death, to honour his soul and to ensure it didn't go hungry, they scattered rice into the water.
For many centuries dragon boat racing was a violent clash known as the "To Fight and Cross Over" ceremony. Often, the race resembled a naval battle, with crew members of competing boats throwing stones and striking at one another with cane sticks. Onlookers also played an active role, with fans on the riverside cheering their teams and firing stones at opposing boats. In an echo of the more ancient human sacrifices to the river dragon, it was thought to be unlucky if there wasn't at least one drowning.
The multicoloured boats were decorated with ferocious-looking dragon heads, scaly bodies and elaborate tails that rose out of the sea. Crews at one time might have included a hand-clapper to accompany the drummer and as many as four singers. Smaller boats laden with food and wine catered to the competitors.
Certain rituals have developed in connection with the festival, including the "awakening of the dragons" Blessing Ceremony. Priests of the Ching Chung Taoist Church of Canada perform this ceremony annually at the Alcan Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival. Another interesting ritual involved the "five poisonous animals" - the snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard and toad. Red paper is cut into the shapes of these animals, red symbolizing vigour and life, and the shapes are placed in a gourd to trap evil spirits associated with the numerology of the fifth days of the fifth month.
From its beginning as a rain ceremony on southern China's river banks to Vancouver's own multicultural celebration on the shore of False Creek, dragon boat racing and its attendant festivities have changed considerably over the centuries. Today, through continuing such ancient traditions as the Taoist Dragon Blessing Ceremony, we honour what today's dragon boaters like to call "the spirit of the dragon", which is the spirit of coming together and working as a team for a common goal.
In sharing those traditions and celebrating them together with the many solstice festivities of all our cultural communities, we rekindle the spirit of the dragon every June at the Plaza of Nations, Concord Pacific Place and on the sun splashed waters of False Creek.
We trust that the spirit of Qu Yuan approves.
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