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Experiencing the Dragon Boat Race

Explore dragon boat racing and its traditions.

Dragon boats

The tradition of the dragon boat race spans 2000 years, and was the original rowing sport. This sport has continued into modern times and can be witnessed around the world, from mainland China and Hong Kong to California and New York. It is a fun and exciting festival to witness.

Learning about the significance of this festival will expand your appreciation for the culture, and motivate you to seek out a local dragon boat festival or travel to enjoy the vibrant celebration offered in many areas of the world. 


The dragon boat race takes place during the dragon boat festival. The largest race occurs in Hong Kong, with hundreds of teams participating every year. The rowers practice months before competing, with 10 to 50 rowers in each boat. The rowers face forward – not backward like a crew team – and keep the beat of their row in time with the drummer on their boat. 

The teams travel a total of 270 meters, often finishing the race in under 2 minutes. 10 teams participate at a time with the top teams competing at the end to win the prize money. There are often many onlookers, cheering on their favorite boat or team. 

The onlookers, on their own boats, either cut their motors or use inboard electric boat motors to cause as little disturbance as possible to the already turbulent waters created by the hectic and exciting scene. 


The tradition of the dragon festival has varying stories surrounding its origin. One popular one includes an old religious ceremony to help appease the rain gods. It takes place right before the hot summer months in an effort to drive away death, disease, evil, and drought.

The boat itself is designed to resemble a dragon. A dragon in Chinese culture represents power like the emperor, the bringer of rain, the transporter of the dead, and luck. By decorating the boats like a dragon, they are ushering in all of these things for their summer season.

Traditionally a priest would “awaken” the dragon by dotting the eyes of the dragon on the boat. This would awaken it to its duties of protecting the people from evil for the rest of the year.

An additional story revolves around a great Chinese patriot that was banished by his emperor. His name was Qu Yuan. In his grief, he threw himself into the river. When others heard of his plight, they raced to to recover Qu Yuan’s body. Those trying to save Qu Yuan’s body beat drums to scare off the fish from feasting on him. Thus began the great race, coupled with the traditional dragon festival.


The festival is held on the fifth day of the fifth month. In America this is typically in May, but in China this day can fall between May and June – it changes every year. This is due to the Chinese following the lunar calendar. Western cultures and many others follow the Gregorian calendar, which simply tracks the earth’s orbit around the sun. In contrast, China’s calendar accounts not only for earth’s orbit around the sun, but also the moon’s movement around the earth.


The great dragon boat race festival is a wonderful time for friends and family to come together and celebrate their health and good fortune. While traveling in the spring, seek out a local dragon boat race festival to experience the excitement, colors, traditions, and beautiful culture that the celebration provides. 


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