The celebration is an important part of ancient agricultural Chinese society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing activity historically was situated in the Chinese sub-continent's southern-central "rice bowl": where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats. dragon boating is mostly celebrated in China. Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese Zodiak only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical (Dog, Rat, Tiger, Horse, Snake, Rabbit, Rooster, Monkey, Goat, Ox, Pig), yet all twelve of these zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. In China, dragons are traditionally believed to be the rulers of rivers, lakes and seas (so water) and to dominate the clouds, mists and rains which are of heaven. 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. It is believed sacrifices through drowning may have been involved in the earliest boat racing rituals. During these ancient times, violent clashes between the crew members of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo stalks. Originally, paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water could receive no assistance from the onlookers as their misfortune was considered to be the will of the Dragon Deity which could not be interfered with. Those boaters who drowned were thought to have been sacrificed. That Qu Yuan sacrificed himself in protest through drowning speaks to this early notion. Furthermore, when rice seedlings are first planted, they are 'drowned' in rice paddies and eventually transplanted to be harvested later. Dragon boat racing traditionally 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.

 

From Wikipedia,

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Dragons Boat Origins

Dragon Boat racing as an amateur water sport has its roots in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers held over the past 2000 years throughout southern China. While ‘competition’ has taken place annually for more than 20 centuries as part of religious ceremonies and folk customs, dragon boat racing has emerged in modern times as an international sport, beginning in Hong Kong in 1976. There is a ritual before a race called Awakening of the Dragon which 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). At festivals today, a VIP can be invited to step forward to touch the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint made of the blood of a chicken in order to reanimate the creature's bold spirit for hearty racing.   Present day dragon boats are still similar to those raced over two thousand years ago. The multi-colored boats, up to 90 feet in length and just wide enough for two people to sit in, are decorated with ferocious-looking dragon heads, scaly bodies and elaborate tails that appear to rise out of the water.  Each crew consists of 20 paddlers, one drummer and one steer person. Teams race along a straight course ranging from 250 to 2,000 meters. Top speed comes with a well synced stroke of the blade - a seasoned Dragon Boat team will have a stroke rate of 70–80 strokes per minute, and can travel over the water at 10-13 feet per second. Dragon boating has evolved from its colorful beginning 2,500 years ago into an International sport with teams and races on all the continents. There is even an effort to promote dragon boating as an Olympic sport. But the history of dragon boats in competition reaches as far back as the same era as 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. Similar to outrigger canoe (va'a) racing but unlike competitive rowing and canoe racing, dragon boating has a rich fabric of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious traditions. In other words, the modern competitive aspect is but one small part of this complex of water craftsmanship. The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists and anthropologists - for example George Worcester, authoritative author of 'Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River' - to have originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of such iconic rivers as the Chang Jiang, also known as Yangtze (that is, during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia. Dragon boat racing as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations, and for the traditional veneration of the Asian dragon water deity, has been practiced continuously since this period.

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