A dragon boat is a human-powered watercraft originating from the Pearl River Delta region of China's southern Guangdong Province. These were made out of teak but in other parts of China different kinds of wood are used. It is one of a family of traditional paddled long boats found throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands, and Puerto Rico. The sport of dragon boat racing has its roots in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers, which dates back 2000 years throughout southern China, and even further to the original games of Olympia in ancient Greece. Both dragon boat racing and the ancient Olympiad included aspects of religious observances and community celebrations, along with competition.
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Dragon boat racing as a modern international sport began in Hong Kong in 1976. These boats can be made out of carbon fiber and other lightweight materials. For competition events, dragon boats are generally rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. At other times (such as during training), decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for drummers to practice. For races, there are 18-20 people in a large boat, and 8-10 for a small boat, not including the steersperson (helm) and the drummer. In December 2007, the central government of the People's Republic of China added Duanwu, along with Qingming and Mid-Autumn festivals, to the schedule of national holidays.
Similar to the use of outrigger canoes or Polynesian va'a, dragon boat racing has a rich fabric of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious traditions, and thus, the modern competitive aspect is but one small part of this complex water craftsmanship. The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists, and anthropologists to have originated in southern central China more than 2500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of the Chang Jiang (now called the Yangtze) during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia). Dragon boat racing has been practiced continuously since this period as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations and for the traditional veneration of the Chinese dragon water deity. The celebration was an important part of the ancient Chinese agricultural society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing was historically situated in the Chinese subcontinent's southern-central "rice bowl"; where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats.
Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese zodiac, only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical animals, yet all twelve of the zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. Dragons were traditionally believed to be the rulers of water on earth: rivers, lakes, and seas; they also were thought to dominate the waters of the heavens: clouds, mists, and rains. There are earth dragons, mountain dragons, and sky or celestial dragons (Tian Long) in Chinese tradition. Mythical dragons and serpents are also found widely in many cultures around the world.
Traditional dragon boat racing, in China, coincides with the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to June on the modern Gregorian Calendar). The Summer Solstice occurs around 21 June and is the reason why Chinese refer to their festival as "Duan Wu" or "Duen Ng". Both the sun and the dragon are considered to be male. (The moon and the mythical phoenix are considered to be female.) The sun and the dragon are at their most potent during this time of the year, so cause for observing this through ritual celebrations such as dragon boat racing. It is also the time of farming year when rice seedlings must be transplanted in their paddy fields, for wet rice cultivation to take place. Wu or Ng refers to the sun at its highest position in the sky during the day, the meridian of 'high noon'. Duan or Duen refers to upright or directly overhead. So Duan Wu is an ancient reference to the maximum position of the sun in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year or summer solstice.
Venerating the dragon deity was meant to avert misfortune and calamity and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and thus for the prosperity of an agrarian way of life. Celestial dragons were the controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds and the clouds. The Emperor was "The Dragon" or the "Son of Heaven", and Chinese people refer to themselves as "dragons" because of its spirit of strength and vitality. Unlike the dragons in European mythology which are considered to be evil and demonic, Asian dragons are regarded as wholesome and beneficent, and thus worthy of veneration, not slaying. But if rainfall is insufficient drought and famine can result. Dragon veneration in China seems to be associated with annually ensuring life giving water and bountiful rice harvests in south central China.
Another ritual called Awakening of the Dragon involves a Daoist priest dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber and re-energising its spirit or qi (pronounced: chee). In modern dragon boat festivals a representative can be invited to step forward to dot the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint.
Not understanding the significance of Duanwu, 19th-century European observers of the racing ritual referred to the spectacle as a "dragon boat festival". This is the term that has become known in the West. Dragon boat racing, like Duanwu, is observed and celebrated in many areas of east Asia with a significant population of ethnic Chinese such as Singapore, Malaysia, and the Riau Islands, as well as having been adopted by the Ryukyu Islands since ancient times. The date on which races were held is referred to as the "double fifth", since Duanwu is reckoned as the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which often falls on the Gregorian calendar month of June and occasionally in May or July. Duanwu is reckoned annually in accordance with the traditional calendar system of China, which is a combination of solar and lunar cycles, unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar system.
The crew of a standard dragon boat is typically 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, 1 drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 sweep (a steerer) standing at the rear of the boat. Dragon boats however vary in length and the crew size will change accordingly, from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers up to the traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and sweep.
The pulsation of the drum beats produced by the drummer may be considered the "heartbeat" of the dragon boat. The drummer leads the paddlers throughout a race using the rhythmic drum beat to indicate the frequency and synchronicity of all the paddlers' strokes (that is, the cadence, picking up or accelerating the pace, slowing the rate, etc.) The drummer may issue commands to the crew through a combination of hand signals and voice calls, and also generally exhorts the crew to perform at their peak. A drummer is mandatory during racing events, but if he or she is not present during training, it is typical for the sweep to direct the crew. The drummer's role is both tactical and ceremonial. In official competitions, such as the world championship, drummers must physically beat the drum or the team could be given a time penalty. In other events or practices an experienced team may not actually use the drum as they can paddle together naturally without listening to a beat.
Good drummers should be able to synchronise their drumming with the strokes of the leading pair of paddlers, rather than the other way around.
The paddlers sit facing forwards in the boat, and use a specific type of paddle which, (unlike rowing sweep, or scull), is not rigged to the racing watercraft in any way. Therefore, Dragon boaters are paddlers and not rowers or oarsmen/women.
The paddle now accepted by the world racing federation has a standardised, fixed blade surface area and distinctive shape derived from the paddle shapes characteristic of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) delta region of Guangdong Province, China, close to where Hong Kong is situated. The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) Paddle Specification 202a (PS202a) pattern blade has straight flared edges and circular arced shoulders based geometrically on an equilateral triangle shape positioned between the blade face and the neck of the shaft.
The first pair of paddlers, called "pacers," "strokes" or "timers," set the pace for the team and are responsible for synchronising their strokes with one another. It is critical that all paddlers are synchronised. Each paddler should synchronise with the stroke or pacer on the opposite side of the boat, that is, if you paddle starboard side (right) you would take your timing from the port side (left) stroke. The direction of the dragon boat is set by the sweep, rather than by the paddlers while actually racing, however for docking and other manoeuvres, individual paddlers may be asked to paddle (while others either stop the boat or rest) according to the commands given by the drummer or sweep.
Modern dragon boat racing is organised at an international level by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) the world governing body for the Sport. The IDBF is a member of the Global Association of International Federations (Sportaccord) and is a founder federation of the AIMS Group (Alliance of Independent Recognised Members of Sport) within Sportaccord. AIMS is an IOC Recognised Multi Sports Organisation. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) also has a small Dragon Boat programme for those of its Member Canoe Federations with an interest in Dragon Boat Sport. Both Sport and Festival racing are very competitive and many paddlers train all year round and may use paddling machines or pools during the winter.
A festival race is typically a sprint event of several hundred metres, with 500 metres the most common, 200, 1000 & 2000 metre races are also standard distances in international competition. 2000 metre races are normally held on a 500-metre course which teams must do two loops starting and ending at one end and completing three 180 degree turns. Other distances may also be used in local festivals such as 100 or 250 metres or another distance depending on the size of the lake or river.
Organizations, recognition and popular cultureEdit
The established International Federation for dragon boat sport is the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). In 2007, the IDBF was recognised as a member of SportAccord (the former General Association of International Sports Federations, GAISF) which is part of the Olympic Movement, considering the own historical and cultural backgrounds and identities of dragon boat sports.
IDBF member associations or federations have been established in 89 countries or territories since 1991. The IDBF is not presently an Olympic International Federation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) but the IOC are currently considering the IDBF application for Olympic Federation status.
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