Dragon Boat Racing is entering an exciting new era. Participation in dragon boat racing is increasing rapidly, not only in China, where it originated but the US, Australia and in Europe. Within Australia, there are now 25,000 dragon boat paddlers and more than 200 crews. In the European Union there are over 300,000 paddlers, plus 90,000 in Canada and the United States.
I spoke with Serghei Cusca, Head Coach of the Australian Dragon Boat Federation about why the sport has become so popular.
Serghei: “There are very strong influences because these countries love water. Australia, Canada, US, Europe – they love water sports. A lot of people who come into the club, they’re new to the country and don’t have friends and they don’t know anyone. When they come to the club, they’re making friends. You’re working together towards the same goal and end up socializing together.
You end up feeling comfortable among each other.”
How has dragon boating evolved in Australia?
Over the last ten years, it’s become more professional and there are a lot of professional paddlers. In Asia, there are professional paddlers who are making a living from dragon boating.
In Australia, there is no money to win: when you race in Australia, it’s all for the good of your heart. When you go to some sponsored competitions in China, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore, there’s a lot of big companies who put money in, you can win some money. We first went to the World Cup in 2014 – it was the first World Cup ever in the history of dragon boating, it was run in Fuzhou, in the eastern part of China. We won some money, we came fifth out of fourteen countries.
How do the Australian clubs compare with those in other countries?
It depends on what category we’re running; if it’s Premier category, we have only one medal. In Asia, we are usually between second and third places – for the last five years we have come second and third in the Asian Championships.
Internationally, which dragon boat teams are ahead of the game?
On a premier level, it’s usually China, Thailand, Indonesia and Burma. These four countries usually win everything. Some countries like the Phillipines, if they have good support from government, they can bring very strong teams.
Are there strong links in the Australian Dragon Boat Federation with your Chinese counterparts?
Every time we go into competition we have a traditional Chinese ceremony. All boats are blessed by Chinese monks. We have a cultural directive from Dragon Boating Federation to keep that tradition.
We have a lot of invitations to race in China. For instance, we have gone to the Four City Race, it’s beautiful and the atmosphere is very supportive and friendly. It starts from Hong Kong and then Guangzhou and then other cities are usually different. We were there in 2014. When you go to China it is always a good experience.
Origins of dragon boating
Dragon Boat races can be traced back more than 2000 years, when neighbouring villages would race against each other. These ritual competitions have gone on for more than 20 centuries, with a boat
decorated as a dragon. These races were part of 端午节 literally meaning “Double Fifth Festival” a festival held on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month. Called “Dragon Boat festival” in English, these races are an intrinsic part of Chinese culture; a celebration of team work and patriotism.
The dragon is part of the boat – a sacred mythological creature in Chinese culture. It is the greatest of all the Chinese spiritual animals in the zodiac, signifying power and strength.
It is also represents 阳，a male counterpart to the female 阴 peacock. Suggestively, these two spiritual animals are customarily intertwined in traditional Chinese folk art and paintings.
In early China, the dragon was believed to control water. Thus, it’s significance is aligned with the power and the devastation of of rain, floods and typhoons. A dragon is a composite of a number of animals: it has the head of an ox; the antlers of a deer; the mane of a horse; the body of a snake; the claws of an eagle and the tail of a fish. With all of these various animal attributes, the dragon is able to swim in water and to fly in the sky. Yet another term for a dragon in Chinese is The dragon boat has the head at the front and the tail at the end of the boat. The paddles are the symbolic claws with different variations of row boats, some designed for between 18-20 paddlers and some for 8-10 paddlers.
There were many variations of boat paddlers in the past, although now this has become standardized with a team member steering at the end of the dragon boat and a drummer and at the helm.
In ancient China, Dragon Boat races were part of a ritual to appease the rain gods. Later, during the Warring States era, when China was divided into many kingdoms, the tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival came into being. It was through the legendary story of a Chinese bureaucrat Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), of the Chu Kingdom.
The story goes that when the King of Chu tried to align the kingdom with the Qin (the most powerful kingdom in China at that time), Qu Yuan opposed the alliance and was banished from his Kingdom. During banishment, Qu Yuan lived a solitary existence in exile.
When the Qin captured the main city of Chu, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning in the Miluo River. He was admired by the local community, who went out in boats to retrieve his body. Afterwards, villagers would throw sticky rice into the river to feed the fish, so that they would not devour the body of Qu Yuan.
Traditionally, Qu Yuan is remembered as a hero who was willing to stand up against political corruption. The memory of Qu Yuan’s sacrifice has continued to be honoured through Dragon Boat races in China.
BY Elizabeth Winkelman