Dragon Boating is believed to have started in China some 2,000 years ago, with the exact origins now lost in time. One version on how the sport started tells of a fertility rite on the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in the valleys of southern China to ensure plentiful crops. For many centuries (or so it is said), dragon boat racing was a violent clash known as the ‘To Fight and Cross Over’ ceremony. Often, the race resembled a naval battle with crews of competing boats throwing stones and striking one another with cane sticks.
Another and more widely accepted version tells of the death of the popular poet Qu Yuan (340 - 278 BC), who was also a favoured courtier in the court of the King of Chu. Chinese history describes the fourth century BC. as a time of shifting alliances and much treachery, so when Qu Yuan cautioned the King of Chu against signing a treaty with the neighbouring State of Qin, the other courtiers were very suspicious of his motives. Misinterpreting Qu Yuan’s intentions as an attempt to assume greater political power, they ganged together and convinced the King that Qu Yuan could not be trusted, which resulted in Qu Yuan being exiled from the court and banished from the Kingdom.
Popular with the local people however, Qu Yuan wandered the countryside and as he did so, composed some of China’s greatest poetry expressing his fervent love and his deep concern for his country and its people. When he later learned Chu had been devastated at the hands of the Qin, he became very depressed and eventually committed suicide by leaping into the Mi Lo River to drown.
As news of his suicide reached the villagers, they immediately took to their long boats and raced to the spot where he drowned so they might recover the body of their beloved poet. They beat drums and also splashed the water with their paddles to frighten away the fish and threw food made up of rice and ‘zong zi’ (a type of glutinous rice wrapped up in vine leaves) into the river to distract the braver fish from eating his body.
Both the act of beating drums and throwing rice are traditions that have carried through to today’s dragon boat races.