In the Eyes of the Dragon

1999 CCLC dragon boat team
Dragon boat racers collide with inexperienced paddlers, grubby rivers, and language issues. What brings them back year after year?
Published:Taipei Review Vol. 50 No. 6 June 2000
(formerly the Free China Review)
Story Type: SPORTS
Byline: L. F. Lee

It's six o'clock on a cool April morning in Taipei, and fifty-odd students from more than a dozen different countries have gathered outside the Center for Chinese Language and Culture. They are here for various reasons--curiosity, peer pressure from classmates, the desire to get in shape--but they all share one thing in common: a fascination with the ancient sport of dragon boating!

The sport of dragon boat racing has its origin in the festival of the same name, the Dragon Boat Festival. Held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (this year, June 6), the Dragon Boat Festival is one of China's three major holidays, with a history that some people believe dates back even further than Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Originally it was a time for reminding family members to take care of their health by observing arcane customs and rituals. To drive away evil, people would post pictures of Chung Kuei (P), nemesis of evil spirits, around their homes, while adorning their front doors with the Asiatic palms known as calami, which strongly resemble swords, and moxa, an herb rather like mint. Both are believed to ward off pestilence and strengthen health. To attract good luck, on the other hand, people would eat zongzi (sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves) and drink hsiunghuang wine, give out fragrant sachets filled with aromatic flowers and herbs, and--for reasons lost in the mists of time--try to stand an egg on its end at noon exactly.

Dragon boats were an important feature of this festival. Originally they were used in a ceremony for supplicating the God of Water to prevent floods and other natural disasters. The races took on additional meaning, however, after the death of the great poet and patriot Chu Yuan (}) in 290 B.C. Chu Yuan was an advisor to King Huai of Ch'u. Although Chu was an immensely popular official, his objections to King Huai's use of force during the Warring States Period resulted in his banishment in 303 B.C. As he wandered around the countryside, watching the nation he once served slide into chaos, he fell into despair. Eventually he committed suicide on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival by drowning himself in the Milo River of Hunan Province. Although unable to save the great poet, the people of Ch'u tried their utmost to prevent his body from being devoured by fish. Some paddled back and forth in their fishing boats and scared the fish away by splashing their oars and beating drums; others attempted to appease the fish's appetite by throwing zongzi into the river. Thus was born the competitive sport of dragon boating.

1996 MTC dragon boat team
Aficionados contend that every dragon boat has its own soul. If you want it to be "cooperative," making appropriate offerings before race time is de rigueur.

Dragon boats are extremely colorful, especially the bow where a representation of a dragon's head is located. Traditional wooden boats are wide and heavy, typically weighing in at approximately 1,750 pounds. Newer boats tend to be narrower, significantly lighter, and constructed of fiberglass. Liu Ching-piao (BM), a local dragon boat builder who has been in the business for forty years and claims to have made all the boats used in Taiwan north of Chiayi County, central Taiwan, is worried about the future of the old-style boats. "Fiberglass boats may be lighter and faster, but they lack the aura of simplicity and tradition," he said in a 1997 interview with the local China Times. "My father passed on the knowledge of building dragon boats to me a long time ago, but now I worry that there'll be no one in the next generation to continue the tradition."

Whether new or old, dragon boats all come in a roughly oblong shape that makes for differences in the size of its seating, with the thwarts at the front and rear of the boat being extremely narrow, and cramped, while the ones in the center are large and wide. The boats are also equipped with a platform near the front for a drum, and sometimes a seat for the drummer.

1996 MTC dragon boat team
Incoming ROC President Chen Shui-bian at the 1996 Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships, when he was mayor of Taipei. No boat is complete until the dragon's eyes are colored, and employing a local bigwig to do the job confers much cachet.

For the who? Perhaps it's time to take a look at the software. The drummer is one of the aspects of dragon boating that differentiates this sport from all others. From afar, it often looks as though all the crew are paddling in time to the drumbeat. In reality, however, that is usually true of only the first two or three pairs. This is because by the time the sound reaches the ears of the last pair, it will be a fraction of a second off from when the first pair of paddlers heard it. Though a fraction of a second might not seem that significant, when a twenty-two-person team is pulling some seventy to eighty strokes per minute, the delay can cause a noticeable "wave" or "caterpillar" effect, resulting in inefficiency. Some teams that have extremely good timing will therefore ignore their drummer completely, leaving him free to beat random patterns in an attempt to distract opposing teams. Some drummers even blow whistles to throw other teams off sync.

In addition to the paddlers, a steersman, and the drummer, there is also a flag catcher. In almost every other kind of race, the winner is the first to cross the finish line. Not so in a dragon boat race! There, a flag is attached to a buoy at the end of each lane. As the boat draws near, the flag catcher must scramble onto the dragon's head and snatch the flag before that team can be declared the winner. This extra element adds an interesting twist to dragon boat races, since a team with a commanding lead may yet fail to win if their catcher misses the flag or falls into the water while trying to grab it.

Dragon boat racing is one of the ultimate team sports. As with a tug of war, strength, speed, and endurance all take a back seat when compared with technique, teamwork, and harmony. Depending on the size of the boat, anywhere from fourteen to twenty-four people will have to paddle in complete unison. The slightest delay on the part of a single crew member can result in a substantial loss of speed and power, or worse--a clashing of paddles and resultant chaos. All other factors being equal, a team that has mastered the timing will almost always beat a team that is physically stronger but paddling out of sync.

R. Kinney
Robert Kinney--
"It's truly a team sport where everyone is doing the exact same motion and, hopefully, doing it at the exact same time."

Robert Kinney of the United States has been on the team maintained by the Center for Chinese Language and Culture (CCLC) for eight years, four of them as captain. "It's truly a team sport where everyone is doing the exact same motion and, hopefully, doing it at the exact same time," he says. "That's the kind of rhythm that gets the most strength out of every single person and pulls the boat toward the flag most efficiently."

As one might expect, such expertise does not come easily. The preparation process is rigorous. Land training begins with a warm-up jog, stretches, multiple sets of push-ups and sit-ups, and other exercises. The task of getting everyone into basic shape is especially hard. Wannabe team members vary greatly in physical fitness. Some are only interested in the cultural aspects of dragon boating and have never really exercised in their entire lives. Then there's the language barrier. As students studying Chinese at the CCLC, everyone has attained differing levels of Chinese language skill. With team members coming from all six major continents, simply explaining what the next exercise will be or how to hold the paddle correctly becomes a major task in itself.

K. Long
Kiet Long--
"We tend to forget the curiosity that we once had toward dragon boating and push new members beyond their limits."

With only two months to train before the races, exercise sets increase in quantity and the number of repetitions per set is raised at a very fast pace. The number of miles to be run each day quickly triples and then quadruples, all in less than two weeks. Every day is vital, and training is held five days per week, regardless of rain or shine. Some students, unable to adjust, quit. "The turnover rate at CCLC is extremely high," says seventh-timer Kiet Long, who comes from the United States and captained the CCLC women's team in 1996 and 1997. "Most students stay no more than one year. As a result, we have to start off fresh every year. At times we do have returning members, but the problem we have then is that newcomers often join the team for the cultural experience, whereas old teammates return for the competition and love of the sport. We tend to forget the curiosity that we once had toward dragon boating and push new members beyond their limits." The majority stay on, however, and ultimately a team is forged.

Dragon boating is very different from, say, sculling. A dragon boat has two rows of people pulling water with a single paddle apiece. The upper hand and arm guide the paddle, while the lower hand plunges it into the water and pulls, a style that tends to work the arms a bit unevenly. Most races in northern Taiwan have paddlers in a sitting position, but in Kaohsiung and other parts of southern Taiwan crews sometimes paddle standing.

L. Rask
Lene Rask--
"Being in the boat is the best part, it's what dragon boating is all about. This is where the team is really built."

After two to three weeks of land training, the team heads to the river for their first taste--or rather, smell--of the water. As with any nation that has undergone rapid industrialization within a short span of time, Taiwan's "economic miracle" has brought about a high degree of pollution. This is reflected in the tremendous amount of garbage and the resulting stench in many of its rivers. The second round of students to quit the CCLC team usually does so after viewing the conditions of the racecourse. For the most part, however, the team holds together. Having come this far in the training, it doggedly paddles past piles of floating debris, the desire to compete in a real dragon boat race driving the crew onward. "Being in the boat is the best part, it's what dragon boating is all about," says Lene Rask from Denmark, who captained the CCLC women's team for two years. "This is where the team is really built."

They certainly need the motivation. The site for the annual Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships held by Taipei City used to be on a section of Hsintien Creek in the southwestern corner of the city. That stretch of water was notorious for having dead dogs, pigs, fish, and cockroaches floating around in it. In 1994, the afternoon races on the first day had to be postponed because of a large quantity of garbage that suddenly flooded the course from upstream.

When the number of international teams coming to Taipei to compete dropped to only four in 1995, the following year the organizers moved the competition northward to the Keelung River. That had less visible garbage but more chemical pollution, and on race days large quantities of perfume had to be poured into the water to drown out the stench. Many members of the CCLC team wore masks to protest the pollution.

1999 CCLC dragon boat team
Teams from the Center for Chinese Language and Culture, formerly the Mandarin Training Center, have been competing in Taiwan's dragon boat races for more than twenty years now. They have yet to win the Presidential Cup, but their enthusiasm is legendary.

This is not to say that all of Taiwan's rivers are unbearable. The Congressional Cup Race sponsored by Taipei County, for example, is held at Pitan, and although this eventually flows into Hsintien Creek, it is actually a pristine and beautiful stretch of water. Although this race lacks an international dimension, with the attendant clout of competing against teams from around the world, many CCLC team members say that they would prefer to skip the Taipei City races completely and just compete against the local teams at Pitan, simply because of the superior water quality.

Dragon boat race courses can be anywhere from 250 to 1,000 meters in length, though those in Taiwan mainly tend to be 400 to 600 meters. Most races here consist of double heats. Two teams compete for the distance of the course, return to the starting block, switch lanes, and row again. The time taken to complete both heats is added together, and the team with the faster combined time wins that particular race. By switching lanes, the possibility of a stronger current in one of the lanes giving a team an unfair advantage is removed. Indeed, some final competitions in Taiwan will even go so far as to have both teams swap boats and paddles to ensure fairness. A team will continue to compete until it has lost twice.

M. Tan
Michael Tan from Malaysia recalls how the CCLC team once made it through to the finals. "Win or lose, we'd already attained that honor. We were already winners."

CCLC teams have competed in the Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships for over twenty years now, and have usually done well despite the crash induction and training course. One of the highlights for the school was in 1997, when both the men and women's teams clinched first place in the international division and had the honor of competing against the best local teams. Although they failed to win the finals, the euphoria of simply making it that far was reward enough in itself. "It's every team's hope to make it to the finals to compete for the Presidential Cup," says the men's captain for that year, Malaysia's Michael Tan. "Win or lose, we'd already attained that honor. We were already winners."

The CCLC has also competed in the Congressional Cup Race for almost a decade, and occasionally will travel to Sun Moon Lake, Ilan, or other areas for additional races. Despite innumerable complaints about the training and the dreadful pollution, almost everyone ends the season with many new friends, wonderful memories, and a feeling of immense satisfaction. Crew members who stay in Taiwan for more than a year often join the team a second or even a third time. Others return home to their respective countries and search out new teams to join; and given the speed at which dragon boat news is spreading, those teams are becoming increasingly easy to find.

A. Cotter
Adrian Cotter--
"Naturally, being in San Francisco, I just looked on the web, and voila I found the Bay Area Dragons."

US paddler Adrian Cotter joined the CCLC team in 1993 and remained a member until he left Taiwan in 1996. He then moved to San Francisco. "A little lonely, I was looking to find another dragon boat community," he recalls. "Naturally, being in San Francisco, I just looked on the web, and voil? I found the Bay Area Dragons. I sent them an e-mail and volunteered to steer, and I've been steering at local races ever since. In 1997, an outrigger crew was forming a dragon boat team to compete in Taiwan and invited me along to steer. Speaking Mandarin and being familiar with the boats and the race, they were eager to have me along. It was a great opportunity to come back and surprise a few old teammates who were still paddling for the CCLC--and also a great surprise to end up losing to them!"

The sport has taken the Western world by storm over the past decade. Despite having a 2,200-year head start in Asia, rigorous and highly scientific training methods have allowed Western nations to catch up with and even surpass many of their Asian counterparts. One of the main reasons for this surge is the fact that numerous other countries hold races and tournaments all year round, as opposed to only during the Dragon Boat Festival. They have also focused more on the competitive aspect of races and less on their cultural overtones; for instance, most tournaments held in the West have done away with the flag catcher's role.

The first World Championship Dragon Boat Race was held in 1995 in Yueyang, China, and the second one was held in Hong Kong in 1997. The third was hosted outside of Southeast Asia for the first time in Nottingham, England, in August 1999, when the dominance of Western nations in this sport became manifest: Germany, Canada, and Great Britain placed first through third respectively, and China placed the highest of all participating Asian nations at a distant ninth place.

1997 MTC dragon boat team
The CCLC men's and women's teams proudly display their banners at a Taipei County tournament held on a comparatively clean and fragrant stretch of water in Pitan.

In the past, almost all of the CCLC students who joined the dragon boat team did so with very little conception of what they were getting into. Today's volunteers, however, have much more than a general idea of what the sport is all about, and some of them have even participated in races before. Regardless of whether China can reestablish itself as the leader in the sport that it created, with the year 2000 being the Year of the Dragon, the future of competitive dragon boat racing looks bright indeed!


The author lives and works in Taipei.
For six years, he has been participating in
dragon boat races held all around Taiwan.

Copyright (c) 2000 by L.F. Lee


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