Origin of Dragon Boat Racing
Dragon boat racing is said to have originated over 2,500 years ago life-sustaining on rivers in the valleys of southern central China as a fertility rite to ensure plentiful crops. The time of year these races occurred was traditionally associated with disease and death. The race was held to avert misfortune and encourage the rains needed for prosperity—and the object of their worship was the dragon.
Dragon boat racing as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations, and for the traditional veneration of the Chinese zodiac water deity: the dragon, has been practiced continuously since this period. It is said to rule the rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rains. The celebration is an important part of ancient agricultural Chinese society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing was historically situated in the Chinese sub-continent's southern-central "rice bowl": where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats.
The first races were meant to mock dragon battles staged in order to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Sacrifices were made to the dragon sorcerers. Humans, the cleverest and most powerful of all beings, were the original sacrifices. Even much later, a rower—or even an entire team—that fell into the water would receive no assistance because it was believed to be wrong to interfere with the will of the gods.
Duanwu Jie (Dragon Boat Festival)
The Dragon Boat Festival is known in Chinese as Duanwu Jie. The festival title Duanwu Jie translates to the Double Fifth Festival which is derived from being celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calender (the lunar calender), commonly known as the Summer Solstice. The alternative Chinese name is Longchuan Jie which literally translates to the Dragon Boat Festival. It is also a national holiday in China.
Why the Dragon?
In Chinese culture, the sun, like the Chinese dragon, traditionally represents masculine energy, whereas the moon, like the phoenix, traditionally represents feminine energy. The summer solstice is considered the annual peak of male energy while the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, represents the annual peak of feminine energy. The masculine image of the dragon was thus naturally associated with Duanwu Jie, thus came about the dragon in the Dragon Boat Festival.
Origin of the Festival
The festival started over 2,300 years ago in southern Mainland China during the Zhou Dynasty. Although there are countless stories about the origin of this holiday, the most popular legend, by far, is that of Qu Yuan - a Confucian sage revered in China for his great works in poetry.
The story starts with Qu Yuan attempting to drown himself in the Miluo River. The villagers carried their dumplings and boats to the middle of the river and desperately tried to save Qu Yuan, but they were too late to do so. However, in order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles, and they also threw rice into the water both as a food offering to Qu Yuan's spirit and also to distract the fish away from his body. However, the legend continues, that late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he died because he had taken himself under the river. Then, he asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon.
These packages became a traditional food known as zongzi, although the lumps of rice are now wrapped in leaves instead of silk. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat racing, held on the anniversary of his death every year. Today, people still eat zongzi and participate in dragon boat races to commemorate Qu Yuan's sacrifice.