A Brief History of Modern Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon Boat Races TW

June 2 is the Duanwu Festival (端午节), known in English as the Dragon Boat Festival.  It is a traditional Chinese holiday that falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar.  The most popular theory of the festival’s origin is that it commemorates the ritual suicide drowning of the poet Qu Yuan (屈原) in present day Hunan’s Miluo River (汨罗江) in 278 BCE.   According to lore, his friends rushed out in boats to try to rescue him, and when they couldn’t, they threw balls of sticky rice into the water for the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body.  Try to save him yourself with this game.  These valiant efforts are said to have inspired two traditions associated with the Duanwu Festival: dragon boat racing and zongzi.


Animated re-enactment by CCTV

Racing with ornately decorated boats as entertainment began in the 600s during the Tang Dynasty and continued through the various imperial dynasties.  In the 20th century, opinions of the festival shifted with cultural and political views.

As China sought to modernize in the first half of the  20th century, the festival came to represent traditional culture and was seen as both unfashionable and detrimental by intellectuals, including communists.   After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party was in a position implement its cultural agenda.  Though there are records of boat races being held in Guangzhou in 1952 and in Sichuan in 1953, the government banned boat racing during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and during the Cultural Revolution.   The People’s Daily shows no record of festivals being held between 1963 and 1980.  It was not until 2008 that the Chinese government recognized the Duanwu Festival as a national holiday again.

In Taiwan, the festival’s fate was similarly tied to the whims of the ruling government.  During the Japanese colonial era, the Japanese pushed for the festival to be a commemoration of something other than Qu Yuan by holding it on other days like Japanese Navy Day.  Under the Kuomintang, the races became popular again in the 1950s as the exiled government sought to imprint traditional Chinese culture on their new island home.  The races declined in the 1960s when the Nationalist government clamped down on unofficial gatherings, particularly boat races by indigenous people who had raced long before the arrival of the Chinese.  Later in the mid-1970s, to counter the Communists’ discarding of traditional culture, the Kuomintang again promoted the Duanwu Festival and boat racing.

In colonial Hong Kong, the British seem to have cherished the races and recognized its cultural value.   In 1976, to promote tourism, the Hong Kong Tourist Association (香港旅遊協會) (now Tourism Board (展局)) organized the first International Dragon Boat Festival.  Over the next few years, this traditional sport was actively promoted through cultural exchanges around the world as a modern competitive sport and recreational activity.  In 1980, three teak boats were sent to London for the Hong Kong in London Chinese Festival.  California’s first glimpse of the sport was in 1983 when Singapore presented San Diego three boats and held a competition to select a team to compete in races Singapore the next year.  It was introduced to Canada at the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver by the Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver (see photos by Robert Rodvik).   In 1991, the International Dragon Boat Federation, a governing body that enacts international rules and regulations for the sport and organizes dragon boat championships, was founded with 12 member countries to coordinate all the dragon boat racing activities.  Today, around 70 countries are members of the federation.

The race’s rapid rise in popularity is due in part by a smart decision to adapt it to be more like established rowing and canoeing competitions, thus attracting an existing watersport base.  In 1983, the first American dragon boat team was assembled in Philadelphia, made up with experienced rowers like Bob McNamara who simply saw it as “an extension of rowing”.  With only a month of training and adjusting to unfamiliar boats, they competed in Hong Kong and came in second.  As the Philly Dragon Boat Association’s historical reports show, they were very enthusiastic about competing in these races.

In addition to competitive racing, dragon boat racing has been adopted as a corporate teambuilding and charity fundraising activity (racing for breast cancer awareness is so popular has its own Wikipedia page).  It’s not clear who was the first to turn a tribute to an ancient Chinese poet into the aquatic version of a fun run, but the camaraderie and goodwill that inspired dragon boat racing in the first place lives on.

Dragon boat festivals are popular community events in the United States.  For 2014,  the United States Dragon Boat Federation lists about 70 festivals across the United States in cities with large Chinese populations like New York and San Francisco and in places with smaller ones like Montana, Milwaukee, and Mississippi.  Some festivals like the Walgreens Space Coast Dragon Boat Festival in Cape Canaveral, FL are purely about racing, while others, like the Milwaukee Dragon Boat Festival, incorporate cultural exchange programs.

Interestingly, each festival describes dragon boats’ origins with varying amount of information.  The Montana Dragon Boat Festival is fairly detailed about the race’s beginnings, while the Madison Dragon Boat Festival casually mentions that it’s a “2000 year old tradition ”without referencing whose and highlights that Dragon Boat Racing was featured on popular TV shows like The Bachelorette, The Biggest Loser, and The Amazing Race.  Seen another way, minimal reference to dragon boats’ origins and the fact that many festivals do not occur at the Duanwu Festival show how much they’ve become a cultural institution of their own.

In addition to the hyperlinked sources above, National Taiwan Sport University’s (國立體育大學) Li-Ke Chang’s paper “Post-colonial Dragon Boat Races: Some Preliminary Thoughts” provided much of the history.

Image: John Skodak licensed under Creative Commons