The significance of dragon boat racing is put in the spotlight each year during the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. According to legend, the Chu people did not want their beloved minister Qu Yuan to drown after he threw himself into a river, so they rowed their boats up and down the river trying to find his body, but they never succeeded. It is for this reason that each year on May 5, people remember the late Qu Yuan. They commemorate his death by rowing dragon boats over the water to scare the fish away and prevent them from eating Qu Yuan’s body. Nowadays, dragon boat racing has a wider function of celebrating good harvest and praying for peace, which has helped the tradition become a unique culture carrier and an important folk custom in southern China. In 1980, dragon boating racing was listed as a national sport in China, and the Chinese government even organized a contest called the Qu Yuan Cup.
Over the past few decades, dragon boat racing started appearing in different sorts of international games and celebrations outside East Asia. As one of the fastest growing international water sports, dragon boat racing not only spread across the Asian Pacific but also made its way to the West. Today, groups across Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States regularly organize dragon boat racing and other dragon-boat-related activities. In addition to the many Chinese abroad who can now inherit and carry forth this folk custom, people from other backgrounds are beginning to fall in love with this sport, too.
How do these small boats attract athletes from so many different regions, races, and cultural backgrounds? For one, dragon boat racing offers a thorough workout, exercising the upper back and the neck and shoulder muscles, helping to relieve pain from these areas while correcting bad posture. Rowing exercises also help to strengthen the core muscles, which can help reduce pain in the lower back. Furthermore, dragon boat racing is as much of a strength workout as it is a cardiovascular builder, stimulating respiratory muscles and the cardiopulmonary system, and due to the sometimes rough movement of the boats, it also helps practitioners improve their balance.
In addition to the workout it provides for individuals, dragon boat racing is, above all, a team sport with one simple goal: beat the other teams to the finish line. While the sizes of teams vary from place to place, a typical team is composed of 20 oarsmen, one drummer, and one helmsman. They must work as one to achieve the most efficient rowing rhythm possible. To succeed, racers undergo several training programs to perfect starts, speed regulation, acceleration, and so on. Seeing this exhilarating competition in person makes viewers feel the presence, vitality, and power exuded by the teams. The contest is not merely a sporting spectacle but a true reflection of patriotism and the spirit of teamwork. Dragon boat racing demonstrates the importance of organization and cooperation within a team and the fact that the success of a team depends on each and every member’s effort. Only a team’s success can bring personal success, and a team’s success is the greatest kind.
The first Chinese Dragon Boat Festival in North America was held in Boston in 1979. After this event’s resounding reception, more festivals were organized like it across the country. Large cities with traditional Chinese enclaves, such as San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, and Honolulu, weren’t the only hosts; annual dragon boat races also popped up in Denver, Portland, Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, Tampa, Phoenix, and Orlando to name a few. With their exuberant oriental atmospheres, dragon boat races provide both a fun physical competition for racers and a wider opportunity to foster cross-cultural communication between Eastern and Western cultures.
Participants come from a variety of backgrounds. Some teams are launched by college students or other groups of athletes while other teams are formed around causes; a women’s team, a senior team, and even a cancer survivors club are some examples. It is a truly inspiring event!
For those curious Americans who have a taste for outdoor activities, dragon boat festivals provide direct access to foreign culture, an opportunity that builds mutual cooperation among people from all sorts of backgrounds. Today, there are nearly 100,000 dragon boat racers in North America, and the United States even has its own national team that takes part in international competitions organized by the International Dragon Boat Federation. Since its inception, the US team has taken the gold twice, once in 2001 and another time in 2011. The awe-inspiring sport of dragon boat racing has certainly evolved into a great sporting spectacle, one that transcends geographic and cultural boundaries to share Chinese national spirit with the rest of the world.