Dragon boat racing is based on an ancient Chinese tradition. Dragon boat racing began over 2,300 years ago on the life-sustaining rivers in the valleys of southern China as a fertility rite to ensure plentiful crops. The first participants were superstitious and held their own celebration on the fifth day of the of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (summer solstice). This time of year was traditionally associated with disease and death. The race was held to avert misfortune and encourage the rains needed for prosperity and the object of their worship was the dragon.
The most venerated of Chinese zodiac deities, the dragon of Asia has traditionally been a symbol of water. It is said to rule the rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rains. The first races were meant to mock dragon battles staged in order to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Sacrifices were made to the dragon sorcerers. Humans, the cleverest and most powerful of all beings, were the original sacrifices. Even much later, a rower or even an entire team that fell into the water would receive no assistance because it was believed to be wrong to interfere with the will of the gods. Over the years a second story was integrated to give the festival a dual meaning to the touching saga of Qu Yuan.
Chinese history describes the fourth century B.C. as the Warring States period; a time of shifting alliances and much treachery. In a kingdom called Chu lived a great patriot and poet by the name of Qu Yuan. He championed political reform and truth as essential to a healthy state. The King, who had fallen under the influence of corrupt ministers, banished his most loyal counselor, Qu Yuan, from the kingdom. Left to wander if the countryside, Qu Yuan composed some of China's greatest poetry. In it, he expressed both his fervent love for his country and his deep concern for its future.
Upon learning of Chu's devastation at the hands of a rival kingdom, he leaped into the Mi Lo river holding a great rock in a display of heartfelt sorrow. The people loved Qu Yuan very much and raced out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river in a vain attempt to save him. They beat on drums and splashed their oars in the water, trying to keep the fish and water dragons away from his body. To honor his soul and to ensure it didn't go hungry, they scattered rice into the water. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that the rice that was meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three cornered silk packages and to tie five colors of string about it to ward off the dragon. This tradition is continued to today, although now the dumplings are wrapped in leaves rather than silk. Today, dragon boat racing is the fastest growing water sport in the world.