Dragon boating: history and traditions

New Zealanders are often familiar with rowing, sailing and waka ama, but what about dragon boating?  

The roots of dragon boating reach back more than 2000 years, to a story of the Kingdom of Chu in China. 

Politician and poet Qu Yuan had an honourable reputation and a respected position in the kingdom, but during a time of upheaval and war, his enemies unfairly accused him of treason and Qu Yuan was exiled. 

On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, on learning his old homeland had been conquered, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River. 

One version of the story says that following his death, the locals took their boats out to search for him, dropping rice wrapped in leaves into the water to stop dragons and serpents from eating his body – to this day, traditional sticky rice dumplings called zongzi are eaten around the same time dragon boat festivals are held, where crews take to boats and race each other.  

Traditionally, dragon boat festivals are held on what’s sometimes known as Double Fifth – the fifth day of the fifth lunar month – which ends up landing between late May and mid-June. Through the centuries, dragon boating spread across Asia and the globe, developing into an international sport. 

Chris Stone of the Auckland Dragon Boating Association says dragon boating made its way en masse to New Zealand shores in the 1980s, driven by a group that included multi-Olympic gold medalists Paul McDonald and Ian Ferguson.  

Paddle action at the Auckland Anniversary race in 2021.

“They saw dragon boating as having potential in New Zealand and through the 1980s, they took to developing the sport and spreading it out,” he says. 

It was first picked up as team-building exercises for corporations or as the basis of charity events. Stone says often Auckland’s Princess Wharf was draped with flags as teams from all around the North Island gathered to take race.  

“Back then the rules were pretty much 'there was a line to start and the line to finish'. It was quite basic. However, New Zealanders, being as we are, will race for anything. There was a lot of appetite for this.” 

In the 1990s, the International Dragon Boat Federation was established and dragon boating as a serious international sport took off.  

Some dragon boating crews fall on the more competitive side of the sport, while others find it a great social activity.

Stone estimates that these days, between 2000 and 3000 people in New Zealand take part in dragon boating. Whether it’s for a social team or a serious racing team, people come from all walks of life to join.   

“We have probably one of the most diverse group of people you could imagine. Only recently, I was paddling with a lady in her 70s next to me, a breast cancer survivor and in the same boat, we had a young lady who was only 16.” 

In dragon boating, 22 crew members take to a boat: up to 20 to paddle, one to steer and one to drum. Each boat is 12 metres long and just over a metre wide and teams race each other in lanes. But it’s more than a sport – cultural and historical traditions play an important part. 

At the foundation of the sport, tradition is weaved through,” Stone says. 

That comes down to both how the boat looks and how it’s raced.  

Annie Wang, senior grade paddler of Dragon Riders, drums for the crew to help keep time.

"So, when you observe a dragon boat, you'll notice that along the side of it, there are scales which are aligned all the way along it. On the front of the dragon boat is a dragon's head and there are specifics around the paddle and its shape that are also part of tradition.  

“During racing, there are drums that are on the front of the dragon boat and there is a compulsory rule of drumming during formal racing. The practice of drumming is probably one of the largest connections to tradition,” he says. 

And while some people may be used to the idea of smashing a bottle of champagne over a ship’s bow to christen it, dragon boaters bless their boat by dotting the eyes of the dragon head, the last unpainted part of the boat.  

One final tradition that can’t be missed out – at least if you want to win a race – is to splash the dragon head of the boat with water eight times for luck. 

The dragon head on a boat is splashed with water for luck before a race.

When it comes to racing, particularly at international levels, seeing the tactics used when out on the water makes for an interesting time, as every team has their own approach. 

“Around the world, styles of paddling do vary,” Stone says 

For example, he said competitors in Asia often have smaller body shapes, so develop a fast stroke, whereas across New Zealand and the Pacific, paddlers tend to have larger muscle groups and go for a slower, but more powerful stroke.  

But outside the competitive circles, dragon boating is recognised as a great way to meet people and get out on the water. 

If you’re interested in learning more about dragon boating, or in giving it a go, check out the New Zealand Dragon Boating Association website, or check Facebook to see if there’s a local dragon boating association to join. 

Images supplied by Chris Stone/Auckland Dragon Boating Association

- Asia Media Centre