DragonBoatHistory

Dragon Boat History

Phase 1: Medieval jìngdù, or "competitive crossing"
     The earliest boat races in China were rooted in training for naval warfare. The earliest records show that the peoples of the region that is now southern China and southeast  Asia  used oared longboats for fighting and for demonstrating their military prowess. Oared longboats were fast and maneuverable, and they functioned on water rather as light  cavalry did on land: for reconnaissance and patrol, for “special operations” duty behind enemy lines, and, in units of several hundred boats, for occasional massed attacks on rival  squadrons or even against much larger armadas of troop-transport and siege vessels.  Success in such tactics, especially in often narrow and challenging water environments, required coordinated, high-speed rowing for each boat, and coordinated maneuvers for whole boat squadrons, which in turn required training.  With this, boat racing was born.   
Boat model of a (non-military) oared longboat,
from the second century A
D 

    The earliest evidence of boat racing being used as an exhibition sport comes from around 550 AD, in the form of a staged mock battle called  jingdu (jeeng-DOO), which means “competitive crossing.”  Oared longboats with teams of about thirty men would fight to gain the crossing of a river, in an event that was part race and part combat.  Jingdu events were staged in the late spring or early summer in military garrison towns in the central Yangzi region (modern Hubei and Hunan), and eventually spread to other regions of what is now southern China over the next several hundred years. The northern-based Tang imperial court, which conqured the Yangzi valley in the 600s, began to stage jingdu events for entertainment, using much more ornately-decorated boats.

Phase 2: Late imperial dragon boat racing
    Starting in the late 800s the imperial Tang dynasty collapsed, and a series of short-lived local military regimes fought for control of the south. They began to use jingdu races as a recruitment and training tool for their naval forces, and the practice was adopted by the new northern-based Song empire
 
Twelfth century AD painting of imperial naval review showing dragon boats surrounding a Great Dragon Ship
when they conquered the south in the 960s and 970s.  During the next several centuries of Song rule, boat racing became a competitive sport in which the winners were promoted into the imperial navy at the capital (Kaifeng, now in Henan province). Imperial naval forces staged races for imperial review at a large lake west of the city. The imperial boats were always decorated like dragons, which symbolized imperial authority; as a result, other decorations (birds, tigers, and other animals and designs) fell out of use, and the races began to be called "dragon boat jingdu" or just "dragon boat competitions."

   The Song dynasty was forced to flee south of the Yangzi river, and eventually was conquered by the Mongols in the late 1200s. Over the following centuries, the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing (Manchu) dynasties stopped sponsoring dragon boat racing as a tool for naval recruitment, and the races became entirely local affairs. Races continued to be often more like a mid-river brawl, and participants began using paddles, which allowed them to pack men more tightly into the boats,  and to more effectively engage in hand-to-hand 


combat. An "arms race" developed in some regions, with boats becoming as long as 30 meters (about 100 feet) or more and packed with eighty men. Paddling styles included sitting, kneeling, and standing, sometimes with several styles all used at once on the same boat.

Phase 3: The development of modern dragon boat racing
    In the 19th century, powerful European nations such as Britain and France used their superior military power to control territory and economic privileges in the Qing (Manchu) Empire, leading to increased pressure for reform. Dragon boat racing was seen by most officials as a corrupt custom
that disrupted water transport and led to gambling and fighting, and was often repressed, though it remained widely practiced. Some reformers thought that it could be turned into a modern sport and would contribute to a stronger, prouder nation. Some efforts were made in this direction in the 1920s to 1950s, but the Communist government decided it represented old feudal customs and banned it in the early 1960s.

     In 1976 the British-controlled government of Hong Kong began to develop dragon boat racing as a sport to encourage tourism. Over the next ten years, other locations around the world (especially in developed
 
Sketch of an early twentieth-century dragon boat on the Yangzi river near Wuhan, Hubei province
 Asia, Europe, and Canada) began holding festival races on the Hong Kong model.  They developed a style using a relatively short boat, 12m long, with 20 seated paddlers, a drummer at the front, and one person on the steering oar at the rear. An alternative style used an even shorter boat with only 10 paddlers. The races became a popular club sport, leading to the development of several national associations in the late 1980s. In 1991, the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) was established in Hong Kong, constituted out of 12 national committees, including China. The IDBF went on to publish by-laws, rules & regulations, and full technical specifications for the modern sport, which is now practiced in over sixty countries worldwide.

    Meanwhile, with the opening of China to reform and international influence in the late 1970s, traditional-style dragon boat races began to be revived in local communities all over China, a process which has continued to this day.
The international IDBF-standard races are also increasingly popular in China as well, so that it is quite common to find both traditional and modern international styles races being held in the same area.
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