In Chinese culture, the classic Dragon rides the clouds in the sky and commands the wind, mist and rain ..... a revered symbol of strength and power.
In ancient China, the Dragon Boat with ornately carved dragon's head and tail, was used for religious purposes as a way of appeasing the rain gods.
The history of dragon boats can be traced back to more than 2000 years ago, along the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in Southern china, such as the Chang Jiang (now the Yangtze). There are two main legends popularly related to the custom of racing dragon boats.
Awakening the dragon - Chinese Dragon Boat Festival
The traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Festival is held on the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from lat May to middle June), which is traditionally considered a month of death and disease, evil and darkness, due to the high summer temperatures (in China). Therefore, venerating the awakiening Dragon was meant to avert misfortune and encourage rainfall, needed for the fertility of crops and prosperity of the people. The annual celebration is mean to protect the people from evil & disease for the rest of the year.
The Dragon Boat Festival was primarily held as a ceremony to awaken the hibernating 'Heavenly Dragon'. Sacrifices, sometimes human, were involved in this ritual and it could be a violent clash with the crew members of the competing boats throwing stones and striking each other with cane sticks. Originally, paddlers (or even an entire team) falling into the water could receive no assistance from onlookers as the accident was considered to be due to the will of this 'Dragon Deity' and could not be interefered with .... If people drowned it was considered a sacrifice.
Dotting of the Eye Ceremony
The ceremony called 'Eye Dotting' or 'Awakening the Dragon 'traditionally involves a Taoist priest dotting the protruding eyes of the dragon head carved on the boats, thus ending its slumber. The ceremony is practiced at many Dragon Boat events throughout the world today, sometimes with event dignitories performing the 'dotting of the eye'.
The Legend of Qu Yuan
The other legend connected to the Dragon Boat Festival concerns a famous Chinese patriot poet names Qu Yuan. He lived in the period called 'the Period of Warring States'(475-221BC) during which the area today known as China was torn into seven main states battling among themselves.
Qu Yuan was a minister who advocated reforms in his home state of Chu. He was loyal to the Chu king who fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who eventually managed to turn the king agains him. Qu Yuan was banished from the State he loved and wrote passionate poetry expressing his concerns for its future.