East China Normal University's dragon boat team
As the Summer Solstice approaches, China will be celebrating Duanwujie, or Dragon Boat Festival (June 18 this year), when groups of young men race through water in their uniquely designed boats in a festivity that has a history spanning centuries.
International students are all out in a training session.
It is a tradition that has caught on with universities across China. Many of them are organizing races with international students joining the activity.
For the uninitiated, the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who lived during the Warring States Period (453-221 BC) and opposed an alliance between his kingdom of Chu and the Qin State.
After the fall of Chu capital to the Qin State, Qu, once a minister, committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River in Hunan Province. Legend has it that local people “paddled their boats as fast as possible” in their effort to save the much-loved poet, which, however, proved to be in vain. The quick-thinking locals then threw in rice balls into the water to distract the aquatic creatures from biting into Qu’s body.
Today’s celebrations have adopted two unique features from the legend of Qu — the racing of dragon boats and eating zongzi (sticky rice dumplings wrapped in lotus leaves).
Such has been its popularity that races have been reported even from far-off places like the United States.
Mikhail Riabovich, from Russia, is one of the drummers in the East China Normal University team.
The Shanghai Universities’ International Student Dragon Boat Competition has been a fixture for the past 10 years and has been held at the East China University of Science and Technology in Fengxian District. This year, 28 teams will be vying for the top honor today.
The dragon boats used in competitions today often consist of 20 people — 18 people paddling away while one person acts as the helmsman and steers the boat. A drummer at the bow of the boat plays a steady beat that is supposed to help the paddlers to maintain their rhythm during the race.
Gloves are often worn to protect hands from the gripping tape on the paddle.
The boats are over 12 meters in length and often weigh 300 kilograms.
The Shanghai Universities’ International Student Dragon Boat Competition requires teams to have a minimum of six female students paddling. The distance they all have to cover is 200 meters.
In recent years, East China Normal University has been quite successful in the competition, winning it three times over four years.
The university’s dragon boat team captain, Rustam Boboev, 23, from Tajikistan, says teamwork and synchronization really matter.
“The key to propelling the boat forward is for all members to paddle in a synchronized form. If one person is off beat, the entire boat will be affected. That is why the drummer is very important as those paddling need to keep pace with the tempo at which he/she is beating the drum,” he explains.
The idea of synchronization also affects the movements of the bodies.
“In order to better propel the boat forward, one needs to use his/her leg to push off of the floor of the boat in front him/her while leaning forward. The force created from this push propels one’s torso upward. The key is to use this force to move the paddle instead of only pulling the paddle with the arms,” Boboev says.
Kalimoldanov Sayat, 23, from Kazakhstan, captain of Shanghai International Studies University’s team, also attaches great importance to getting the synchronization right. “What is inherently difficult to master is paddling in synchronization,” he says.
Having lived in China for six years and competed in the event for two years, Sayat has seen and experienced the difficulties associated with managing a dragon boat team of 20 people.
East China Normal University usually spends a considerable amount of time preparing for the competition, both on and off the water. Besides practicing on their boats, they do cross-fit exercises on land that are intended to strengthen the body and prepare the competitors’ hearts for a quick burst of a one-minute period (slightly above the average time a 200-meter dragon boat race takes from start to finish).
The exercises range from flipping enormous tires for a minute at a time to undergoing circuit exercises of push-ups, pull-ups and dips.
“From one year to the next, members of the dragon boat team graduate and leave the team, making places available for new team members. What allows these new members to acclimate and perform well is the instruction and guidance given by the veteran team members and the drummer,” says Uyanga Lkhamyanjin, from Mongolia, on what makes East China Normal University’s dragon boat team maintain its winning streak.
Uyanga Lkhamyanjin, from Mongolia, is one of the female rowers in East China Normal University's dragon boat team.
Lkhamyanjin has not only competed in the annual event, but has also taken part in different dragon boat races in China, such as the Shanghai Youth Mini Dragon Boat Competition.
“Before coming to China, I only paddled a little bit but had never taken part in any kind of competition like this. It is something special that I have learned in China, and been successful in the sport as well,” she says.
This year’s head of the Shanghai Universities’ International Student Dragon Boat Competition, Huang Meixu, who is also the head of East China Normal University’s international student office, says one of the greatest challenges faced by these teams is dealing with the diversity that make up the teams.
“Every team consists of male and female students who study different majors in different institutes. They are also at different stages of their lives — some doing their undergraduate course, while others are masters and doctorate students,” Huang says, adding that it is an opportunity for international students to not only gain a better understanding of Chinese culture, but also understand better their international peers.
Today’s dragon boat competition will be competitive for both racing and team spirit as hundreds of contestants, spectators and enthusiasts converge at the East China University of Science and Technology to partake in and witness a part of Chinese culture — and, more importantly, for bragging rights.
The dragon boat race starts at 2pm, June 9, at 999 Haisi Rd, Fengxian District.