The history and evolution of the Dragon Boat Festival

By Lau Ka-kuen AND Alberto Lucas Lopez June 06, 2019

Every year, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, crews of paddlers re-enact the legend of Qu Yuan. They power long, narrow boats, their prows mounted with ferocious dragon heads, through the water, to the frenzied, rhythmic beating of drums. This year Victoria Harbour will host the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races on June 14-16. Read on to learn how an ancient Chinese tradition has evolved into a competitive global sport

The legend

In 278 BC in the ancient Kingdom of Chu during the time of the Warring States, Qu Yuan, a poet and government minister, committed suicide by drowning in the Miluo River, in protest of the prevalent corruption among officials

The “dragons”

Like any team sport, dragon boat racing benefits from athletes with different skills. The crew is assigned places in the boat according to their individual strengths and aptitudes

The boat

Standard equipment used in Hong Kong races includes a hull usually made from teak, with a dragon’s head and tail made of camphor wood. The development of dragon boat-making is distinguished by the type of wood used for the main body of the boat:

  1. Phase 1 (before 1911): Ge wood imported from Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam
  2. Phase 2 (from 1911-the end of 1990s): pine wood imported from the US
  3. Phase 3 (since 2000): cedar wood from Guizhou province, China

The positions

Paddlers in the front are good at keeping time. Out-of-sync blades hit the water a fraction of a second behind each other to create lag. The back paddlers focus more on power strokes to maintain speed in the faster water

Racing rules require paddles to be between 105-130cm in length. The optimum measurement is for the height of the paddle to reach a paddler’s armpit

1. 'A' position
Turn your back to the water. Reach forward stretching arm and back. Place paddle at thigh of paddler in front of you. Lean body outside boat, top arm straight, top shoulder over the water

2. 'Catch' and drive
Enter blade fully in water at approximately 60-degree angle. Pull and counter rotate with lower arm, shoulder and back. Drive down aggressively with top arm

3. Pull and exit
Paddler uses back muscles to pull blade parallel with boat. The blade exits the water when the paddle arrives at the paddler's hip. Using their top arm, paddlers lift the blade from the water

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