Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Dragon Boat Festival

The History of the Dragon Boat Festival 


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 from well over 40 countries. 

In Toronto, from the humble beginnings of the first Festival in 1989 with only 27 teams participating until the 24th Annual Dragon Boat Festival, the event has grown tremendously. This year there are teams from all over Canada, from the U.S, the Caribbean Islands, Europe and Asia. It will be held June 23-24, 2012 at Toronto Centre Island. They are anticipating about 180 to 200 teams, including 11 teams of individuals with physical and developmental challenges, 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.





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.” 

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).  
The great poet Ch’u Yuan became a minister for King Huai of Ch’u as a young man. He was saddened by how the people had suffered from ceaseless war
He is still considered a champion of political loyalty and integrity, as he tirelessly tried to maintain the Chu state's autonomy and hegemony.
The alliance posed an effective deterrent to Ch’in’s ambition. It also earned Minister Ch’u more prestige giving him the right to oversee a wide spectrum of domestic and diplomatic affairs.


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.


 A group of Ch’u aristocrats led by Prince Tzu-lan became jealous of Ch’u. They often complained to King Huai of Ch’u's alleged arrogance and waywardness. Hearing more and more complaints,the king became less satisfied with his minister  


 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. 


The poem was read by people in the Ch’u court, and was used by Tzu-lan and Chin Shang against Ch’u. They told King Huai that in the poem he was compared with a despotic ruler. The king was enraged and dismissed Ch’u Yuan from his official post


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.


Chang explained that, among the six states, Ch’i and Ch’u were the strongest. Once discord was sown between these two, the anti-Ch’in alliance would fall apart. He offered to make a trip to see if he could take the advantage of Ch’u's internal confilict to undermine the alliance.
He still believed the king would see the truth, but he was no longer summoned. He was so depressed that he couldn’t sleep at night. 
Ch’u Yuan despaired. He rushed back to Yingtu to help reorganize the resistance against Ch’in.
The alliance with Ch’i failed soon after, and beginning with the 27th year of King Huai’s reign, Ch’u was repeatedly invaded by Ch’in.
Ch’u was upset. 


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.


He walked along the river, cursing the enemy and the greed of politicians. He was determined to arouse his people’s patriotism and condemn those who had destroyed Ch’u State by taking his own life.
He took off his clothes, tied a rock to his waist, and plunged into the river. That day was the fifth day of the Chinese lunar calendar
This was his last resort to awaken Chu to the impending danger.

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. 


Believing that the patriotic poet would enjoy eternal life, they would row dragon boats out on the river to look for him. Ch’u Yuan became a symbol of patriotism for the Chinese people.
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.

(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.)

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