The Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat Training in Toronto

In Canada we are a multicultural community and as a result we are richer by far in our human experiences. One such experience is the Dragon Boat Festival. I became aware of this some years back and, though I am not of Chinese origin, it has held my interest just the same.  The festival may have started in China countless years ago but it is now an annual event celebrated throughout the world with participation spanning well over 40 countries.

In Toronto from the humble beginnings of the first Festival in 1989 with only 27 teams that participated, the 23rd Annual Dragon Boat Festival has grown tremendously.  This year it has teams from all over Canada, from the U.S, the Caribbean Islands, Europe and Asia. It will be held from June25-26, 2011 at Toronto’s Centre Island. They are anticipating about 180 to 200 teams to compete with over 5000 athletes. The festival has an added advantage of raising funds for charitable organizations, this year the beneficiary will be the Canadian Diabetes Association.

Dragon Boat Festival – In case you are unfamiliar of the origin of this 2000 year old event, here’s a brief summary:

The pre-imperial Warring States period (475-221 BC) is considered a classical age in Chinese history, during which Confucius, Lao Tse and Sun Tzu lived and the classic military strategy “The Art of War” was written.

In this period, in the southern state of Chu (present day Hunan and Hubei provinces), there lived a most notable statesman Qu Yuan (Chu Yuan).  He is considered a champion of political loyalty and integrity, as he tirelessly tried to maintain the Chu state’s autonomy and hegemony.

Because he was a most upstanding individual he became victim to the malicious slanders of other corrupt ministers and jealous bureaucrats’ who had the ear of the Emperor and had him banished.

While in exile however, he continued to write some of the greatest literature and poems, expressing his ardent loyalty and love for his state and divulging his deep concern for its precarious future.

Then one day, in the year 278 B.C. upon learning of the imminent invasion by a neighbouring State (Qin), he did his best to warn his Emperor and countryman. Having failed in his communication however, as a form of protest against the corruption of the era, he strode into the Miluo River holding a rock, committing a ritual suicide. This was his last resort to awaken Chu to the impending danger.

(Note: The Emperor Qin Shi Huang of Qin (or Chin) kingdom did eventually conquer all of the other states including Chu and unified them into the first Chinese empire.)

The ordinary folks upon learning of Qu’s heroic act, rushed out on the water in their fishing boats to try desperately to find him in time to save him. In desperate attempt, they beat the drums and splashed the water with their paddles to keep the evil spirits and fish away from claiming the poet’s submerged body. They sprinkled rice dumplings in to the river to feed the fish to deter them from gorging on Qu’s flesh. Then late one night the spirit of the poet appeared before his closest friends and told them that the rice offering was being intercepted by an enormous river dragon. He asked that they wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. These “zongzi” or sticky rice wrapped in leaves (instead of silk) has been the official commemorative food ever since.

Indeed, from that time on at the anniversary of Qu Yuan’s death, the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar, the ordinary citizens in commemoration of his memory have enacted this folk ritual, by means of Dragon Boat Races. The modern times this has evolved into an international sport event held in Hong Kong since 1976. The boats used today are traditionally made of teak wood. These very long, narrow, canoe-style vessels are usually adorned with carved ornamental heads and tails of dragons. The decorative regalia is absent during training but the drum is always present. Dragons are represented here because of the belief that they are the rulers of rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rains of heaven.

Another interesting Fact about the name: Dragon boat races were traditionally held as part of the annual Duanwu Festival or Duen Ng observance in China.  Duen Ng falls on the fifth day of the fifth month, also referred to as “double fifth”. It’s determined to be so because of the combination of solar and lunar cycles which are different from Gregorian calendar, where it is placed during the month of June. During 19th century European observers of the racing ritual, not understanding the significance of Duen Ng, referred to the spectacle as a “dragon boat festival”. This is the term that has become known in the West.

For those history buffs, here’s an additional succinct account of the Dragon Boat Festival in Canada:

“As early as 1945, the Vancouver Sun newspaper contains a story and picture of a dragon-adorned silver plaque presented to the Mayor of Vancouver by representatives of the republican government of China immediately following cessation of hostilities of World War II in the Pacific. The news story explains that because Vancouver was the North American gateway to Asia, it could be considered as the ideal city to host the first dragon boat race outside of Asia. The proposed post war dragon boat festival was compared to the Mardi Gras of New Orleans. Since 1946 was to be the Diamond Jubilee (60th Anniversary) of the city, it was suggested that a dragon boat festival be convened to mark this occasion. However, this would have to wait until the city’s 100th anniversary in 1986 and the world transportation exposition.

In 1992, the (final) British Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patton, presented a teak dragon boat to the Canadian Prime Minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, to mark the close cultural, social and business ties between Hong Kong and Canada. This craft is now part of the permanent collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. Canada reciprocated by presenting a carved cedar totem pole crafted by British Columbia First Nations members. This symbol of friendship is displayed in a park in Hong Kong.”

Several of the larger dragon boat events outside of Asia include Vancouver’s Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival in Toronto, Ontario, and the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival in Ottawa, Ontario. These three Canadian festivals each feature some 200 crew and are all held on a weekend close to the June Summer Solstice, in keeping with traditional Chinese dragon boat traditions.”

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2 responses to “The Dragon Boat Festival

  1. Wonderful blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Many thanks
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    • Thank you for your kind words. About listing in Yahoo News, I really have no idea how I got there; howerver, I do try to make my tags as descriptive as possible.

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