History of Dragon Boating

There are many competing explanations for Duanwu Jie, the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. All involve some combination of dragons, spirits, loyalty, honor and food — some of the most important traditions in Chinese culture. The festival’s main elements — now popular the world over — are racing long, narrow wooden boats decorated with dragons and eating sticky-rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Qu Yuan was one of China’s greatest poets and an advisor in the court of Chu during the Warring States period of ancient China. He was exiled by the emperor for perceived disloyalty. Qu Yuan had proposed a strategic alliance with the state of Qi in order to fend off the threatening state of Qin, but the emperor didn’t buy it and sent Qu Yuan off to the wilderness.

Unfortunately, Qu Yuan was right about the threat presented by the Qin, which soon captured and imprisoned the Chu emperor. The next Chu king surrendered the state to their rivals. Upon hearing the tragic news, Qu Yuan in 278 B.C. drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province.

For years after Qu Yuan’s death, his supporters threw rice in the water to feed his spirit, but the food, it was said, was always intercepted by a water dragon. After a couple of centuries of this frustration, Qu Yuan came back to tell the people to wrap the rice in leaves, or stuff it into a bamboo stalk, so the dragon couldn’t eat it. It was only generations later that people began to retroactively credit Qu Yuan’s erstwhile lifesavers with starting the rice-ball-tossing tradition.

Now many centuries later, not only the people of China but people the world over race the beautifully decorated “dragon boats” not just on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar but all year long.

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