Enter The Dragons

28Oct05

As published in Virtual Malaysia Magazine
Penang Charms (Sept/Oct 2005)

Penang Island in Malaysia is said to be the first place outside of China to have Dragon Boat races back in 1934. But leave it to Majidah Hashim to hunt down and discover the Spirit of the Dragon beyond its legends and myths.

A number of folklores dictate the origins of the Dragon Boats. Among the most popular is the story of Chu Yuan, a poet and minister to the Kingdom of Chu during the Period of Warring States (474 to 221 BC). It was a troubled period in Chinese history; states were at war with each other and many kingdoms were destroyed. Concerned for his own kingdom, Chu Yuan advised his emperor, but due to politics and corruption, his suggestions were rejected. Chu Yuan was exiled and in depression, he drowned himself in the Mi Luo River.

Grieving over his death, the people took to the river in fishing boats to scare the fish and river dragons away from Chu Yuan’s body. They did this by splashing their oars and beating drums with canes. Dragon Boat races were since held annually to commemorate the suicide of Chu Yuan.

Other myths relate the boats and the season of its race to the stirring rite of the hibernating Heavenly Dragon, said to be among the most sacred creatures in the Chinese zodiac. The race was traditionally held during the summer solstice – a season commonly associated with hardships and when men were weakest against the forces of nature.

The dragon was held as the sovereign of rivers, having power over clouds and rainfall. Offerings and sacrifices were made to ensure prosperity and bountiful harvest. The races traditionally evoked violent clashes as teams threw stones to each other so that people, sometimes even whole teams, were drowned in sacrifice to the dragon.

Today, the Dragon Boat races are purely symbolic. They signify the struggles of man against nature, and more importantly, against the demons within oneself. It is the ultimate symbol of teamwork, unity and camaraderie.

Nonetheless, several rituals of old are still practiced today with varying degrees of ceremony, such as the ‘Awakening of the Dragon’. In those days, a Taoist priest used to dot the protruding eyes of the dragonhead carved into the bow of the vessel to signify its ‘awakening.’ Today it may not necessarily be a Taoist priest.

Another ritual practiced by some Dragon Boat teams is the cutting of red paper into the shapes of five animals: the snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard and toad. Placed in the mouth of the dragon, these are said to lure evil spirits.

Some teams see it as lucky to ‘feed’ the dragons before the race. This is done by placing leafy vegetables or flowers tied with a string in the mouth of the dragon. This ‘feeding’ ritual, which is likened to that practiced by lion dancers during the Lunar New Year celebration, signifies luck, prosperity and abundance.

The Dragon Boat race, having expanded throughout the world, has brought in a multitude of other rituals to the sport, reflecting the influence and contribution of different cultures while uniting them in the common goal of achieving their very best, and of course, winning the race.

In 1956, Dragon Boat racing became an official competition in Malaysia in commemoration with the Georgetown Municipal Council’s 100th anniversary. Ten years later, the Pesta Pulau Pinang (Penang Festival) absorbed it into its agenda, permanently making Dragon Boat races a much-anticipated annual event.

While the mainland China Dragon Boat teams comprise 50 to 180 people, the Penang teams have 12 people (small boat) or 20 (big boat), including the steerer and drummer. The races, now held at the Teluk Bahang Dam, span the length of 500 to 1000 metres.

The Penang Dragon Boat Festival went international in 1979 when teams from Singapore and Hong Kong were invited to participate. Ever since, the event has seen a growing local and international membership. In the 2005 Dragon Boat Festival, teams came from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, together with their own good luck rituals.

Some teams touched the water with their hands and sprinkled it over their heads, faces and in the boat before paddling to the starting point. According to some participants, this symbolically makes them ‘part of’ the water.

A variation of this ritual sees rowers dipping their oars in the water – in unison! The drummer gives a single beat and the rowers would simultaneously lift their oars to an exact degree. Another low drumbeat and the oars are dipped into the water and lifted up again. This is what they call the calm before the storm. The rowers are no longer solitary individuals but limbs of the great Dragon Boat; the drummer becomes its heart and the finishing line, its destiny.

Another drumbeat. The rowers bend their heads in silent prayer. For a moment, the boat drifts carelessly on the water. Then a horn blares and the Dragon Boats spring to life to the loud, rhythmic pounds of ancient Chinese drums.

The first few hundred metres see the boats pacing themselves. The rowers work hard to get a good distance from the boats behind them while preserving as much energy
as they can.

Then comes the final sprint.

Races are usually unbelievably close. In a nose-to-nose battle, one team takes extreme measures. The drummer quickens the beat and the paddlers simultaneously stand and row with the power of their shoulders and waists. Another team sees this and on the drummer’s cue, stands and rows. Everything in the universe disappears, a boost of energy explodes. Some say it is at this moment that the Spirit of the Dragon awakens.

In recent years, many global causes have taken up Dragon Boat racing to advocate their movement. Among the most prominent groups is the Survivors Abreast, an international sister and brotherhood of breast cancer survivors and people living with breast cancer.

The Adelaide Survivor’s Abreast team, clad in their signature hot pink uniforms, looked very much like the sweet elderly ladies you’d meet in your neighbourhood. They had hearty laughs, cheery cheeks and good-luck waves for everyone. They were not out to win the race but to simply prove a point – that there is no breaking of the human determination to live.

Nobody would have thought that they would endure the great lengths of the race and the taxing hot afternoon sprints. But they did. The horn blared and they rowed and never stopped until they reached the finish line.

As they walked back on land, the other teams clapped… for the human spirit that refused to dwindle in misery. They clapped for the celebration of life. Most importantly, they clapped for an outstanding exhibition of the Spirit of the Dragon.

In Chinese mythology, the Dragon tops the list as the most majestic creature of all. It represents strength and benevolence that borders on the invincible. Dragon Boat races reflect this. Above all the rituals and traditions, the sport represents endurance, perseverance, determination, unity and harmony.

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