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The 'modern' form of the sport dates back to the time of the poet-statesman Qu Yuan - around 500BC during the time of the Chinese Kingdom of Chu. He was dearly loved by the common people. The government of the kingdom of Chu was corrupt and many courtiers resented Qu Yuan's talent, sense of honour and popularity. They eventually convinced the Emperor that Qu Yuan was a corrupt influence and he was banished from the kingdom.
For many years Qu Yuan wandered the countryside composing poems about his love for the people until eventually in final protest against the corrupt government of the time, he threw himself into the MiLuo River.
Local fishermen who witnessed it dashed to their boats and attempted unsuccessfully to rescue Qu Yuan. They beat the water furiously with their paddles to prevent fish from eating his body. As a sacrifice to the river spirits, rice dumplings were thrown into the river.
Marble mural of Qu Yuan and dragon boats in a hotel in MiLou
The tragic death of Qu Yuan has been commemorated every year since on the fifth day of the fifth moon when the fishermen's frantic attempt to save the poet is re-enacted in the form of dragon boat races. In keeping with the legend, rice cakes are made but instead of being thrown into the water, they are enjoyed by everyone.
It is unlikely that the original boats used to try to save Qu Yuan were decorated with dragon-heads and tails. Probably over the yearsthe fierce-looking dragon-heads were added to ward off evil water spirits.
Modern international standard racing dragon-boat crews consist of 22 people: 20 paddlers, a steersman ("sweep") and a drummer who keeps time for the rest of the crew and encourages their efforts.
Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province 2007.
There are larger dragon boats which hold crews of 52 or even 104
Guangzhou (Canton) in Guangdong province, 2007
as well as "baby dragons" with 10 paddlers a drummer and a sweep
in Nanning (2006) a Mujaji helmed for the USA team. The boat sank when the last person got in, so we opted for less paddlers
Dragon Boating must be the world's oldest organised continuous competitive activity, pre-dating the Olympic Games of ancient Greece by at least a thousand years. Proof of this claim can be found at the Qu Jialing cultural ruins in Hubei Province, where a drawing of a dragon boat race on a spinning wheel was unearthed that was between 4000 and 5000 years old. Other artefacts, such as the steering oars used in dragon boating, along with patterns of a dragon dated at over 7000 years old have been excavated in other parts of China. As far as we know, Dragon Boats served no dedicated utilitarian or military purpose but ancient Chinese generals once used dragon boat paddling as a fitness and training exercise for soldiers.
It is currently estimated that dragon boating has developed to the point where over 50 million people in nearly 60 countries world wide participate in dragon boat competitions around the globe. The majority race in China and South East Asia, with over 150,000 estimated participants in Europe; 90,000 in North America and 20,000 in Oceania.
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