Generally speaking, Chinese people have traditionally favored calmer forms of recreation — tai chi, mahjong, and table tennis — over competitive tests of athleticism. Life today is stressful and fast-paced: Most students spend all day sitting in classrooms, and adults devote much of their life to their professions. Compared with Western countries, relatively few Chinese people have the time and interest to play competitive sports, and even fewer have the energy and money.
There is an exception, however: dragon boat races. These rowing competitions are especially popular throughout the south of China during Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on June 18 this year. Folk legend teaches us that the custom of rowing dragon boats on this day stems from the great Warring States-era poet Qu Yuan, who killed himself by jumping into a river. When they realized what had happened, the locals rowed boats out on the water in an attempt to save him.
Dragon boats are narrow wooden rowboats with dragon figureheads or other ornaments at the bow. Several dozen oarsmen — generally all male — sit inside. A helmsman sitting at the stern and a drummer often at the bow or middle help the rowers keep a steady rhythm.
In my home province of Fujian in eastern China, dragon boat races are still great events. Generally, neighboring villages or towns compete against one another to row across a local river or lake and pluck a colorful flag from a buoy floating in the water.
In villages with few forms of mass entertainment, dragon boat races are an opportunity to cut loose and have fun. For the oarsmen, winning the race is a great honor for the village. However, there is a darker side to dragon boat races: Every year, a number of competitors lose their lives in accidents.
University students participate in a boat race before the Dragon Boat Festival in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, June 17, 2018. Liu Guanguan/CNS/VCG
Dragon boats are slender vessels that are difficult to turn and capsize easily. When this happens, competitors are sometimes knocked out underwater by the hard walls of the boat. Although they are all good swimmers, swimming skills alone are sometimes not enough to save one from drowning.
In recent years, several tragedies involving dragon boats have occurred. Practically all of them could have been prevented if organizers and participants had taken better safety precautions. During a rehearsal for the race in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in April, two dragon boats overturned next to a weir. Recent weeks had seen abundant rainfall. Although the current seemed gentle, the flow of water created a powerful vortex against the dam that trapped those who fell overboard, resulting in 17 deaths and the arrest of the rehearsal’s organizers.
In June 2016, a dragon boat in Fujian capsized during a race. More than 30 people fell overboard, three of whom were later found dead. And in June 2013, a dragon boat capsized in central China’s Hunan province, sending 36 people overboard, one of whom died.
These deaths were mainly caused by event planners insisting on holding races in the wrong place (areas with dams or weirs nearby) or at the wrong time (the rainy season). Many competitors also refused to wear life vests, arguing that they restricted movement. Finally, few rehearsals or races bother with on-site medical teams.
Sometimes spectators get injured, too. In 2008, soil erosion due to rainfall caused nine spectators at a dragon boat race in Jiangxi province to slip into the water and drown.
In the same way that soccer and other sports suffer from a small but rambunctious contingent of hooligans, dragon boat races also have the potential to turn violent. Sometimes disputes between winners and losers descend into all-out melees between rival villages. In June 2015, the aforementioned Jiangxi county saw a skirmish involving hundreds of people. The worst case since the founding of the People’s Republic came in 1981, when mass brawls in Rui’an, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, injured 128 people and destroyed 155 homes.
These tragedies sometimes cause local governments to ban dragon boat races. Since 2004, Rui’an has prohibited its citizens from holding unauthorized contests. Yongfeng Town in central Hunan province instituted a ban on dragon boat races during the festival this year — and later cancelled it when residents protested.
Unfortunately, authorities have not taken the necessary steps to prevent accidents from taking place. Given the tremendous funds and energy that China invests in maintaining public safety, one would think that providing and enforcing life vests and forbidding races in danger zones would be relatively straightforward endeavors. The truth is that banning the races outright is just a sign of laziness.
A more viable alternative would be to develop well-regulated dragon boat races authorized and organized by local governments. This would force planners to adhere to safety regulations and discourage outbursts of hooliganism. Many regions, including the province of Guangdong and the cities of Changsha and Chengdu, already do this. However, government-led races tend to differ somewhat from the casually organized competitions that have been held in villages for centuries. The latter usually feature colorful folk customs and ceremonies, whereas the former merely preserve the athletic and competitive aspects of the festival.
In the slow-paced towns and villages of rural China, a thirst for escapism has inspired people to race dragon boats in dangerous conditions for centuries. Other popular sports grew out of a similar desire for thrill-seeking. Motor racing, for instance, was once a deadly sport, often claiming the lives of drivers and spectators alike. During the 1955 Le Mans disaster, one racer and 83 spectators were killed, and nearly 180 others injured, after a major crash occurred during the world’s foremost 24-hour endurance race. It was the most serious crash in motorsports history, and since that tragic day, the racing world has actively sought regulation to improve the safety of drivers and spectators alike. It is now time for dragon boat aficionados to look back over the growing lists of casualties and take steps in the same direction.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.