restricted access The Song Navy and the Invention of Dragon Boat Racing
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The Song Navy and the Invention of Dragon Boat Racing

Scholarly research on the Dragon Boat Festival (called Duanwu 端午 in Mandarin Chinese) and its signature event, the dragon boat races, has been moribund for quite a few decades. Claimed by Wen Yiduo 聞一多 in the 1920s to be a primitive ritual for dragon totems with an ancient history dating back before the Warring States period, the races subsequently became conceptualized as an almost a-historical, essentialized performance with a variety of religious purposes and “signifiers” ranging from rainmaking and recalling the spirits of the drowned to grisly human sacrifices.1 In popular literature, the only “history” recounted about the races is the story that they had their origins in an effort to rescue the poet Qu Yuan 屈原 (ca. 340–278 bce) from drowning, a notion widely understood by scholars to be a myth, though a very influential one. Laurence Schneider, writing on the politics of Qu Yuan lore in the late 1970s, was compelled to rely on decades-old scholarship to make sense of the races’ significance, and could not help but be led somewhat astray by what he found.2 Very little has changed in the thirty years since. [End Page 1]

This is a shame, since scholars have long been aware that our understanding of Chinese festivals is in need of updating. Donald Holzman offered a trenchant analysis of the “misguided” and “flimsy” comparative-anthropological approach to the Cold Food festival back in 1986.3 Since then, scholars of Chinese religion have made phenomenal strides in almost every area of research, and there has been much better historically-grounded work on other festivals.4 However, while some light has been shed on aspects of Duanwu, scholars of Chinese religion have paid relatively less attention to the boat races themselves, perhaps because they seem to be only partially a religious activity, less analytically familiar than more obviously sacred temple and exorcistic rituals, artistic traditions, and daily religious practices.5

As I have argued in other venues and recount briefly here, it in fact makes sense not to confine the races to the more traditionally-understood roles of religious practice. They are just as well understood as a type of competitive sport, originally rooted in military training, which eventually developed a broad range of social and cultural functions, including but not limited to religious ones.6 The now-familiar connections between the races and dragon boat imagery, the legend of Qu Yuan, and the rest of the complex symbolism of the ancient state of Chu, which have served as the raw material for symbolic structuralist analysis, were not essential elements of the earliest races; they were later, contingent developments, rooted in very particular historical contexts and time periods. Thus, not only can they not be used to explain the origins of the races, they also do not by any means exhaust the range of the races’ “symbolic significance.”

This essay’s first objective is to illuminate a quite different set of roles and signifiers which the races have held for their participants and onlookers. It begins by mapping out the history of boat racing as a part of the wider culture [End Page 2] of naval warfare in the Yangzi valley, then shows how imperial regimes drew upon these traditions, first for imperial entertainment, then more pragmatically as a way of reaching down into local society to recruit military forces. By far the most important historical transition came in the Song period, when direct patronage and encouragement by the Song imperial military turned boat racing from a locally-staged mock battle into a form of training and recruitment for the imperial navy. As a result, local boat-racing traditions had a substantial “upward” influence that culminated in the late northern and southern Song imperial practice of naval training and review.

The second objective of this essay is to suggest the process by which some of the elements of the expressly archaized and ritualized late imperial tradition now known as dragon boat racing came together.7 The performative practices of the Song imperial naval tradition had a significant “downward” influence on local boat-racing, adding a range of classical signifiers...