When talking about dragon boat racing, Yuanling people will get excited. In late April of the Chinese lunar calendar, dragon boat fans will bring out and bang big gongs in various neighborhoods to improve the profile of their teams, while starting to recruit experienced rowers. On April 28 of the Chinese lunar calendar, dragon boat teams will take their boats for the river trial. After watching each team’s performance, local people will begin to predict the results of this year’s races.
Stealing boat-making materials
Stealing other people’s boat-making materials is a local custom. Dragon boat racers believe that dragon boats made of stealing materials from other teams can increase their chances of winning competitions. During the course, stealers are chased by material owners, but the former always outrun the chasers, which will be interpreted as an auspice of victory in the dragon boat racing.
After the building of the dragon boat is done, locals will hold a launching ceremony, which is called “Guantou”. All oarsmen will attend the ceremony with their paddles, standing at both sides of the boat like soldiers. Sacrificial items including pighead, fish and sticky rice dumplings will be thrown into river after a carpenter cuts off the head of a rooster with an axe. Eight naked boys run around the boat, while others light firecrackers to drive away the evil spirits. Then the oarsmen will board the boat and start the river trial.
Selection of oarsmen
An experienced coxswain divides oarsmen into seven subgroups, which will be seated at various parts of the dragon boat. Their energy, endurance as well as rowing skills will be tested before the race. The coxswain will act as a coach, choosing the best candidates and moving their positions occasionally to keep them in step to win the game in the end. Those who fail the test will be kicked out of the team, which is considered a humiliation.
Grabbing red ribbons
Before the race, dragon boat teams usually join the practice of grabbing red ribbons. Local people buy some red ribbons and invite famous calligraphers to write certain auspicious words on it. Then they tie two ribbons on a long bamboo pole as they believe that good things come in pairs. From May 5th to 11th of the Chinese lunar calendar, people take the long bamboo poles to river banks and wave the poles to give signs to dragon boat teams who will row the dragon boats towards the poles and try to grab the red ribbons off. Afterwards oarsmen will bind the red ribbons on their foreheads as a prize of their rowing skills. After each oarsman wins a red ribbon, dragon boat teams will tie extra ribbons on their boats and row the boats in the river for several turns as a returned gift for the ribbon sponsors.
Sometimes teams will smash their dragon boats and paddles, blaming them for losing the race, and build new boats as soon as possible and invite competitors for a rematch.
Three “two weeks”
From mid-April to May 15 of the Chinese lunar calendar, Yuanling people spend two weeks in preparing their dragon boats for racing, attend the dragon boat races for two weeks, and talk about the events for two weeks. After the completion of the races, the locals will focus their daily conversations on the events, covering topics on winners and anecdotes.
(Translated by Yang Hong)