When one first begins to read Yang Sichang’s account of the dragon boat races, they seem to be about festivities and competition and more about the race itself than other matters. However, as he suggests that the “popular belief is that the race is held to avert misfortunes” and begins to detail the ritualistic significance of the event, it appears that this is more of a quasi-religious festival than a cultural or sporting event.
In short, far from being a mere sporting event to serve as a diversion to the relatively touch life for working people, this is just as much of a cultural and spiritual event that is meant to restore balance and ward off bad luck and serve as an important function that goes beyond entertainment. Even the beginning of the boat race tradition was ceremonial in nature as it is stated at the beginning of Yang Sichang’s account that, “The dragon boat race originated in the old Yuan and Xiang regions as a ceremony to call back QU Yuan” (208) who was a man who committed suicide after falling out of favor with his king. In line with these ideas about the ceremonial over the distinctly sports-related nature of the dragon boat races, issues such as the symbolic importance of food are raised as well. Food is a sign of bounty and sacrifice and appears throughout this description of the races. Food is both a reward and an offering and during this consumption of food and wine, community spirit is built and enhanced through rivalry and ceremony.
For peasants who worked very hard throughout the year, these events offered more than just a chance to relax in their community—it gave them time to come together and collectively give thanks and shore up better luck for many of the ills that plagued peasants, including bad weather, disease, and general bad luck. The author suggests that the ultimate purpose of the boat race is to “avert misfortunes” and says that following the race’s conclusion, “boats carry sacrificial animals, wine, and paper coins and row straight downstream, where the animals and wine are cast into the water, the paper coins are burned, and spells are recited” (209) which is supposed to make ill will, disease, and general bad luck go downstream with the course of the water. While these events occurred within the same timeframe of an entertaining boat race, the spiritual and ceremonial significance seemed to be the most important element overall. One can only imagine that in the difficult life of a peasant during this period, this would not only have been a welcome break from the daily toils, but a chance to feel that they had some power within their community to enact positive spiritual change that might bring promise and hope into their difficult, work-laden lives.
In line with this idea that the religious aspect was one of the most important elements of the dragon boat race, it should also be noted that many features of the race itself were distinctly spiritual in nature. Instead of the race itself being a secular event that was dedicated mostly to sports-related prowess, the boats themselves were iconic of religious and spiritual matters. For instance, as the author notes that one the day the races begin, a “priest makes an oil fire to launch the boat. He can see unfailingly the victory or defeat of the boat from the color and height of the flame” (290) and it is also during this time that the priest says several spells that are directly related to the boats in the race. In addition to the race-related aspects of preparation, the author also notes that all of the boatmen taking part in the race have their own “other ceremonies, [which] being secret, cannot be described” (290). In other words, there is a great deal of superstition, ceremony, and spiritual significance to preparing to race, presumably because winning or doing well in the race will be related to good fortune in the coming year. In other words, there are no aspects of the boat race and its preparations that seem only sports-related; all aspects have special religious and spiritual associations. These more prominent superstitious and ceremonial aspects reveal, or at least hint at, the true meaning behind the dragon boat races more generally.