The sight might seem a bit silly, or at least weird: colorful boats zipping along various rivers in China as crowds gather along the shorelines and toss cooked rice at the crews. Ah, but that is because you do not know the story of Qu Yuan.
Many versions of the tale exist, but essentially Qu was a prodigy in the imperial court and a chauvinistic supporter of Chu, the largest of seven states that made up China in the Third and Fourth centuries B.C. The king of Chu loved him even though they disagreed about the use of force for the sake of expansion. Other members of the court on the take and jealous of Qu's upward mobility persuaded the king to send Qu Yuan into exile. From Hunan, Qu watched Chu fall into decline. Then the powerful warring state of Qi (to which Qu had once been an envoy) forced the issue by invading Chu. This was too much for our hero, so he threw himself into the Mi Lo River and drowned.
During his life in exile, Qu became a student of folklore and the author of Li Sao, a poem of complaint against the emperor, as well as other poetry full of sadness and despair. He is considered the father of Chinese poetry.
Not so silly now, huh? The noble poet's death moved his fans to toss steamed rice wrapped in reed leaves into the water, partly in tribute and partly so the fish would satiate themselves and thereby not nibble on his body. The people also boarded every available boat and hit the water in an effort to retrieve Qu's corpse and, yes, also to scare away more persistent fish. Somehow that sentimental act evolved into the sport of dragon-boat racing.
And it is a sport, one of the fastest growing. It closely resembles rowing (but not sculling, in which paddlers use two oars). Chinese dragon boats are forty feet long and four feet wide; they weigh about five hundred pounds. Each accommodates a team of twenty paddlers, one drummer, and a steersperson (almost as bad a title as "coxswain"). The hulls are made of a glass-fiber polyester, the seats of plywood, a few parts are stainless steel. The boats are extremely colorful (hence the "dragon") and feature dragon heads on their prows.
The memory of Qu Yuan and the burgeoning sport both get their due during the third annual Miami Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival. Teams will race along a 250-meter course as fans cheer them on (no need to throw rice). There will be the usual festival diversions along with the sport that is said to have some 50 million fans worldwide.