Dragon Boating is becoming an increasingly popular sport for city dwellers. But its origins go back hundreds of years to a Taiwanese poet who attempted to drown himself. Jeremy Torr attempts to untangle myth from reality.
Singapore, 30 April 2018. Back towards the end of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty, around 300 BC, an imperial poet called Qu Yuan blotted his copybook with the emperor by making friends with the wrong folks. Worse, he rubbed several of the other court mandarins up the wrong way with his denunciation of corruption. As was the way at that time (with aristocrats, anyway) he was banished, although not sentenced to death.
Nonetheless, despite being spared, Qu Yuan was so aggrieved he decided to make a point by tying a rock to his body and jumping into the Mee-Luo river. But because he was apparently a respected and admired poet - with almost everybody, not just posh folks with a grudge - local fishermen attempted to rescue him by rowing their boats in superfast style to where he vanished, in an attempt to pull him out.
Sadly for poetry, he was very successful and drowned. But luckily for rowers across the world today, the high-speed rescue attempts spawned a new sport called dragon-boating. Teams of up to 22 paddlers sweat and strain over designated courses, usually on rivers, as they try to knock each other out of heats and win the fastest boat prize, judged by grabbing coloured flag from a buoy at the end of the course.
The Taiwan Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month every year; this year it runs from 16-18 June 2018. With more than 5500 rowers in over 200 teams, the festival is the biggest of its kind in Asia, and attracts visitors from all around the world.
There are several Dragon Boat festival locations, with the Lukang event on the Fulu River in Changhua County being judged the longest-running and largest event. Other big races are held in Taipei, Hsinchu, Badouzi Fishing Port at Keelung, the An-ping Canal in Tainan, the Love River in Kaohsiung and at Magong Third Port on Penghu island. If you are looking for a bit of variety, the races at Erlong are unique first because the rowers stand up, and second because there is no set start and finish – just a crowd-voted winning team.
Luckily for unfit types, Taiwan’s Dragon Boat festivals are not all about rowing. Another legend surrounding Qu Yuan tells that the unsuccessful rescuers dropped rice packets into the water to try to stop fish from eating his lifeless body. These became known as zhongzi, and have become inextricably linked to the Dragon Boat races.
Consequently, local traders do a roaring trade in selling the rice dumplings, along with watching plenty of fireworks shows, making artistic portraits to hang in doorways, and generally taking time off work to enjoy the festival atmosphere.
With crews of 20 highly-muscled and straining rowers spurred on by a traditional drummer in the bow beating time, and a sweep steering the boat as close as possible to the competitor’s boats without hitting them, the Dragon Boat races are stunningly photogenic and thrilling.
Both boats and crews all dress up in brilliant costumes and sponsors colours as they zoom over the water in short bursts at up to an incredible 15km/h. If you haven’t been to a Dragon Boat race, go to Taiwan this year – you will definitely thank Qu Yuan for his firm moral stance and ability to galvanise rowers in support of a great day out.