The Legend of Dragon Boating & the Eye Dotting Ceremony “Awakening the Dragon”
The Dragon Boat Festival has been celebrated in China since ancient times. Today dragon boat racing has become a popular international sport and the festival is celebrated in Chinese communities around the world.
For many people the dragon boat races and the arrival of summer are a time to remember one of China’s most famous poet-patriots, Qu Yuan. His death took on an importance equal to that of his life.
Qu Yuan, a statesman and poet who lived more than twenty-three hundred years ago in the state of Chu, hated corruption, but he was surrounded by it. When he tried to introduce fair policies, his fellow ministers wouldn’t hear of it. They plotted and told the king lies about Qu Yuan. And so Qu Yuan was sent away in disgrace.
Still, Qu Yuan remained loyal to his king. For sixty-seven years he lived in exile, writing beautiful poetry that told of his passion and love for his country. In time, he became a hero who was admired and loved by all the people.
In 278 BC, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, Qu Yuan heard that enemy troops had invaded the state of Chu and were storming the palace to overthrow the king. Qu Yuan was heartbroken. Rather than see his country conquered by the enemy, he decided to kill himself. Full of sadness, he went to the edge of the Milo River, grabbed a huge rock as a weight, and threw himself into the water. He sank immediately and drowned.
Fishermen along the river are said to have jumped into their boats and paddled out to rescue Qu Yuan. When the fishermen realized that there was no hope of finding their hero alive, they threw dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves into the water in the hope that the fish would eat this food, rather than Qu Yuan’s body. The fishermen also tried to scare off the hungry spirits and fish by banging drums and splashing the water with their paddles. The search for his body has evolved into present day dragon boat racing.
Every year, on the anniversary of Qu Yuan’s death, which became known as the Dragon Boat Festival, the people of China make rice packages called zongzi (rice dumplings that are traditionally wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with string) to honor the memory of their beloved poet Qu Yuan. Zongzi are also thrown into the water as an offering to feed the spirit of Qu Yuan and the River Dragon.
The people of south China remember the sacrifice made by Qu Yuan with the custom of racing dragon boats adorned with dragon heads and tails. The dragon boat festival is celebrated as a public holiday and is believed to protect the people from evil spirits and disease for the rest of the year. An ancient ritual called “Awakening the Dragon” is also performed where the eyes of the dragon head are literally “dotted” as a symbol to awaken the spirit of the dragon.
Honorees are usually selected to dot the eyes of the dragon head. They should bow three times to the dragon head, then “dot” the eyes of the dragon. The ink used to dot the dragon eyes is red and is mixed with a scant amount of water from the river and even less than a scant amount of the earth you are standing on.
The eye dotting ceremony is typically performed in countries around the world as a celebration and the opening of the paddling season and to bless the boats and paddlers.