Dragon boat racing gains traction in China
By Ji Jing  ·  2023-07-03  ·   Source: NO.27 JULY 6, 2023
A dragon boat passes a river bend during the dragon boat race in Diejiao Township, Foshan, Guangdong Province, on June 22 (XINHUA)

Two hours before an annual dragon boat race started in Diejiao Township in Foshan, Guangdong Province, on the Dragon Boat Festival that fell on June 22 this year, the river banks had been already packed with spectators, some of whom came from other cities.

The dragon boat race in Diejiao is different from conventional ones as the skilled competitors must navigate through many river bends at astonishing speeds during the race.

There are more than 40 competitors on each boat, which is 25 meters long and the boat navigates through a river just three to six meters wide. In awe of the skill required to make the turns, netizens have coined the term "dragon boat drifting" to draw a parallel with car drifting.

More than 20,000 spectators watched the competition on site, and nearly 100 media outlets live-streamed the competition on social media platforms.

While the Diejiao dragon boat race has taken place annually for years, this was the first year that the race had seen so many spectators. Many tourists said they had come after seeing short videos online of competitors training for the race.

Growing enthusiasm

Dragon boat races, always popular in Guangdong, has become even more so this year, after being suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Guangdong has hosted more than 200 dragon boat events. On June 17, the Guangzhou International Dragon Boat Invitational took place for the first time since 2019.

A total of 125 dragon boat teams with nearly 5,000 athletes from universities, foreign consulates and chambers of commerce in Guangzhou participated in the competition.

Days before this year's Dragon Boat Festival, short videos of athletes training at night in Guangdong went viral online. The racers come from all walks of life. As the athletes had to work during the day, they only had time to train at night.

Guangdong people's love for the dragon boat racing is also reflected in the money they spend on it. Cao Delin, a dragon boat athlete from Chebei Village in Guangzhou, told China News Service that a carbon fiber oar costs between 680 to 780 yuan ($94 to $108), a dragon boat costs between 50,000 to 100,000 yuan ($6,937 to $13,874) or even more and a team pays 1,000 to 2,000 yuan per day ($139 to $277) for a coach.

Dragon boat races are taking place not only in southern provinces like Guangdong but also in China's north. The traditional dragon boat race has developed into a modern sports activity combining folk customs, competition and entertainment.

He Yi, Secretary of the Chinese Dragon Boat Association, told Sports Economy Watch, a sports business media platform under Titan Media Group, that in the past the sport was carried out mostly in southern provinces that are home to many bodies of water. Now, northern parts of China is stepping up the development of the sport.

He said even in Beijing, which has fewer bodies of water, there are dragon boat clubs paddling boats in Shichahai Lake in central Beijing and Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace.

The sport has experienced rapid development since the start of the 21st Century and has been included in major sports events such as the National Games and the Asian Games. It's estimated there are nearly 50 million people engaging in the sport in China, he said.

As paddling dragon boats is easier to learn than rowing, the racers come from a wide range of age groups, from middle and primary school students to retirees. In local competitions, middle aged and senior people account for the majority of racers while in national competitions there are fewer middle aged and senior people, according to He.

The sport has been popular in parts of southeast Asia with significant Chinese populations since ancient times, and its popularity has spread to other countries in recent years. During the 2023 International Canoe Federation (ICF) Dragon Boat World Cup, which took place in Zigui, Hubei Province on June 22-24, dragon boat teams from countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, the U.S., India and Zambia joined, highlighting the international appeal of the sport.

This is the second dragon boat World Cup organized by the ICF. Zigui is renowned as the birthplace of Qu Yuan, the ancient patriotic poet whom the Dragon Boat Festival has been set to commemorate.

Craftspeople display dragon head-carving techniques to visitors in Xinyi Village, Miluo, Hunan Province, on June 22 (XINHUA)

Benefits and challenges

The growing popularity of dragon boat racing has promoted the development of the dragon boat manufacturing industry. Qu Yuan is said to have drowned himself in the Miluo River in Miluo, a city in Hunan Province. The city is now known for its dragon boat manufacturing industry. Many dragon boat companies were flooded with orders before the Dragon Boat Festival this year. Zhou Liang, head of a dragon boat factory in the city, told Xinhua News Agency that before the festival, his factory had sold more than 130 boats, far surpassing the number during the same period in previous years.

Li Jianjun, head of the Miluo Dragon Boat Association, told Sports Economy Watch there are 20 dragon boat factories in the city, and dragon boat manufacturing has an annual production value of more than 100 million yuan ($13.9 million).

The races have also boosted the development of the food and beverage, hotel and tourism industries. For instance, Zhenyuan County in Guizhou Province received about 188,600 visits during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday on June 22-24 this year by hosting a dragon boat cultural festival, and raked in a tourism revenue of 173 million yuan ($23.9 million), up 28 percent year on year.

However, in spite of the sport's rapid development and the multiple benefits that have come with it, the sport also faces challenges.

The Development Plan for the Dragon Boat Sport During the 14th Five-Year Plan Period (2021-25) (Draft for Comment), compiled by the Chinese Dragon Boat Association in 2021, not only called for more attention to promoting traditional dragon boat culture, but also to strengthen the ability to organize dragon boat competitions.

Wang Changyuan, a staff member of Guangdong Dragon Boat Association, told Beijing Review that more attention should be paid to safety, not only during competitions but also during training.

On June 22, one dragon boat capsized during training in Guangdong's Jieyang City, leading to two deaths and multiple injuries.

Although it is mandatory to wear life vests during competitions, many athletes don't wear them during training, which poses potential risks. Wang suggested other safety measures such as lifeboats should also be put in place during training to ensure safety. 

(Print Edition Title: Fast and Furious on the Water)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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