The origin of dragon boat racing can be traced to events that happened in southern China over 2,000 years ago. Originally, boats adorned with dragonheads were part of a fertility rite as a way to encourage plentiful rains and a good harvest.
Dragon boat racing within the context of a festival became much more important in Chinese culture with the tragic events surrounding Qu Yuan (pronounced Chu Yuan) around 277 BC. Qu was a senior minister, diplomat, and poet in the Ch’u feudal kingdom. As a man of integrity and wisdom, he gave truthful advice to the king, advice that angered his political rivals. These rivals persuaded the king to banish Qu Yuan. Despondent over his exile and the subsequent decline of the government, Qu put stones in his pocket and drowned himself in the Mi Lo River. When local fishermen raced out to rescue him, they beat their drums and splashed with their paddles to scare the fish and water dragons away from Qu Yuan’s body. They also threw rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves into the water, hoping that the fish would eat the dumplings and leave the body alone.
To commemorate their beloved Qu Yuan, the people of southern China staged dragon boat races to remember the day when they raced into the river in an attempt to save him. The dragon boat races, and the serving of rice dumplings or rice cakes, became an annual event on the fifth day of the fifth month, believed to be the day that Qu Yuan drowned in the Mi Lo River.
Dragon boat races are now held world wide internationally at all levels. The ideals of Qu Yuan are still honored through Taoist ceremonies, the spirit of the paddlers and the invitation and involvement of the local community. Through the festivals’ many activities, people are reminded of the importance of loyalty and commitment to the well being of the people in the community.