The Rise and Fall of Dragon Boat Racing

0616_dragon-baot5Dongguan has long been a center of dragon boat racing, but sadly, this longstanding tradition is being quickly forgotten.

Whether it’s Cornishman in their pilot gigs, students in their University Boat Race or Olympians vying for pure gold, men just love to stick their oar in, get wet, and race. The Chinese are no different. After spending the better part of a year lazing around, muscular and otherwise men are picking up their paddles and getting themselves in prime condition for the dragon boat racing season. That time is again now.

China’s favorite watersport is one of spectacular provenance with some historians claiming dragon boats originated in Southern China nearly 3,000 ago, making this boating older than many of the world’s ancient religions.

“This is 50 people all coming together for one thing and one common purpose, the glory of the village!”

Legend has it that around 300 BC, Chinese loyalist, poet, and patriot, Qu Yuan, waded out into a sacred river to commit suicide in protest of the era’s corruption. Instead, his supporters would have no such thing and paddled boats out into the river, while throwing rice overboard and beating drums to scare away predatory fish. They didn’t save poor Qu (though he did later come back as a ghost), but every year since then has seen dragon boats racing across the water, with a ritual eating of zongzi to commemorate his sacrifice, thereby slowly creating the celebration now known as the Dragon Boat Festival.

Dongguan held some of the earliest races in the country in mostly Wanjiang and today, the entire city holds a special tie for their dragon boat. Early June is a time for men—young and old—to show their spirit to all their hometown and win coveted glory for their villages. All over the city, it is not unusual to see groups of guys dragging their boats into the water before dawn to practice. The boats themselves can measure up to 30 meters long and weigh a whopping half-ton; this sport is no joke.

After the first races, parades continue throughout Dongguan’s waterfront towns to spread across the complex network of channels and streams entwined with the Dongjiang River, the east branch of the Pearl River. Zhongtang, Machong, Shilong and Hongmei are all towns that go a bit nuts over dragon boat racing, when given the chance. It’s not just about the races, either. Locals will gather in their respective hometown to watch their teams stuff themselves silly with snacks such as zongzi and dragon boat rice—a kind of fried rice, mixed with dried shrimp, pork and vegetables—as well as getting thoroughly walloped on baijiu or whatever booze is on hand. This partying continues until they hear the drums, whereby everyone dashes out for more races. The festival provides gossip for months on end and is a key time of the year for many, but particularly for the old timers that have been racing for decades.

Elements to Winning

Lu Chiliang Leads his team

Lu Chiliang Leads his team

Xincun holds some of the biggest and most well attended dragon boat races in Dongguan. Lu Chiliang has been the captain and chief organizer of the Xincun Dragon Boat Team for over 12 years and takes it very seriously.

“This is 50 people all coming together for one thing and one common purpose: the glory of the village!” he says. “I just love this atmosphere.” Lu tells HERE! at length what he believes are the core elements key to winning, “First you need talents,” he says. “[Also], the more budget you have, the better paddlers you get. It’s a cruel reality. Sometimes the result of last year will also affect the motivation of recruits. A champion for last year will attract 400 villagers to try out this year.”

Still, it is not just about having the right people because intensity and duration of training are absolutely key. Rowers are up at 6:30 am each morning for strength training and then put in an additional four hours of training in the river in the late afternoon. Lu claims his experience allows him to do just the right amount of training over a month.

A small advantage makes a big difference and these men will go to any lengths to win. One wonders how long it will be before the dragon boat races have their own doping scandal!

“Humans are not machines, they can’t go like that non-stop,” he asserts. “The key is to distribute the team’s strongest power in either the beginning or end of the event.”

Teamwork is also central to success; dragon boat racing is not a sport for rogue mavericks. Every year, a new team of 50 people forms. It’s crucial that they know each other inside and out, forming a brotherly bond through training and eating meals together. Last, but absolutely not least is the boat itself.

“If you want to win, get a new boat,” says Lu. To prepare for the races this year, Lu’s village made the controversial decision to buy their boat from Foshan instead of going local in Zhongtang, which is widely known as the hometown of dragon boats.

“The truth is for the last couple of years, the winning teams’ boats were all made by the hands from Sanshui of Foshan. We need to stay with the times.” Before 2004, dragon boats were generally made from pine wood, which is very heavy, and was stored under water and kept in mud.

Now, the team has innovated to give themselves an extra edge, and cedar wood has been chosen for its lightness, which increases speed in modified races that have shorter and straighter routes. A small advantage makes a big difference and these men will go to any lengths to win. One wonders how long it will be before the dragon boat races have their own doping scandal!

Dragon Boats in Decline
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Dubbed the hometown of Dragon Boats for over a decade, Zhongtang Town has been the Pearl River Delta’s traditional hub for building these watercrafts for over 100 years. Once, there were eight workshops nestled among three waterway villages—Doulang, Mali and Dongxiang—that supplied quality dragon boats not just to Dongguan, but throughout the province and even further afield. Most of these boat-builders inherited the necessary skills from their fathers and grandfathers, and this group of skilled laborers is even listed as being part of the nation’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Huo Wobiao assembles one of his famous boats

Huo Wobiao assembles one of his famous boats

However, slowly but surely, the races themselves are beginning to be replaced by boat shows instead. The Wanjiang Dragon Boat Association confirmed that Wanjiang will only hold races every three years and merely have parades in the other two years. This year is one of the lucky years to host the event. Such a move has left many locals incensed. In 2015, only Shilong, Shatian, Zhongtang and Machong held races.

According to local officials, the cancellations were due to the high expenses of the races. Apparently a town can spend 300,000 RMB in the month leading up to the races. There are sometimes 70 paddlers per boat and the costs include their wages, uniforms and meals. The boats built for racing are usually used only once, meaning the villages and towns must buy a new vessel each year. What’s more, the villages also rent a motorboat as an escort to the traditional boat, which can cost an additional 1,000 RMB per day.

Following Beijing’s anti-corruption drive, local governments have been under extra pressure to closely follow national policy trends. It’s claimed that this has led to the cutting of budgets for many local festivals, including dragon boating.

Most directly affected are the builders of the boats and artisans that carve the customary dragon heads. The number of dragon boat factories in Zhongtang has shrunk to just four.

“Now there are no races in many of the villages and towns; this affects us a lot,” said Huo Wobiao, one of the surviving dragon boat artisans in Zhongtang. “This year we are doing okay, making more than a dozen boats. Most of them are for Fujian Province though, only one is local.”

Chen Zhijian makes dragon heads for the boats and he has seen his business in Zhongtang suffer. He used to make at least 40 dragon heads per year, now he is lucky if he makes even 10. All this adds up to a loss of over 30,000 RMB a year. This year, he has decided to drop the craft and business he inherited from his father.

Chen Zhijian stands with a beautifully painted head

Chen Zhijian stands with a beautifully painted head

“Now, no one dare to make new boats, even the ones that do are very few. It’s time to call it a day,” he said.

Many Dongguaners are unhappy with the changes.

“The cancelling of the races dampens our spirits; what can we do in the future?” said a local man in his twenties, surnamed Chen. Mrs. Zhu, a 37-year-old resident of Nancheng, understands why it is happening, but it still frustrates her.

“The cost is huge because of the training and the towns have to give bonuses to the athletes if they win the races,” she said. “The boat shows are okay, but they are not as attractive as the races. It will cause a decline in public interest.”

The Rise of World Champions
While the more amateur rowers might have the nostalgic blues these days, the hardcore professionals are shining with glory in the battlefield that is international dragon boat racing. Machong Everbright Dragon Boat Club was founded in January of 2013 and received sponsorship from a local developer, Everbright Group, that June.

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In just the second year it was established, it has already won three championships at the 2014 China Longzhou Tour, as well as, seizing three first place finishes at the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races. This got them an invitation to Club Crew World Championship in Ravenna, Italy and sure enough, they also won a gold medal in the 200-meter race. In 2015, the team grabbed another big win in the International Dragon Boat Federation’s 12th World Dragon Boat Racing Championships that were held in Ontario, Canada. Simply put, Machong has the best dragon boat team in the world, bar none.

With its long history in dragon boat races, Dongguan has nurtured quite a few international champions over the years, winning its first international championship in the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Regatta in 1994. From 1997-99, Dongguan represented China and won first place in dragon boat events in Canada, Malaysia and England.

While the more amateur rowers might have the nostalgic blues these days, the hardcore professionals are shining with glory in the battlefield that is international dragon boat racing.

The competitors and spectators still love the sport, but times are quickly changing. Without the right financial support, dragon boat racing may soon be forgotten, save the hardcore fans.

So, when the parades and celebrations begin again this year, attend with pride and enthusiasm. The future of widespread participation may be uncertain, but the tradition will last forever.

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Category Feature Stories