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VIDEO: Magic dragons

The sport of dragon-boat racing started in China about 550 A.D. and has spread around the world in the 21st century.

In 1991 the International Dragon Boat Federation was established in Hong Kong. The federation published bylaws, rules and regulations, and full technical specifications for the modern sport, which is now practiced in more than 60 countries worldwide.

Watch as the U.S. Consulate’s Stars and Stripes team, paddling furiously to the beat of its drummer, breaks into smiles and cheers of excitement as it crosses the finish line first in a June 10 race in Hong Kong.

In sixth-century China mock battles called jingdu (jeeng-DOO), which means competitive crossing, longboats manned by teams of about 30 men fought to gain the crossing of a river. About 50 years later the Tang imperial court staged jingdu events for entertainment, using ornately decorated boats.

During several centuries of Song rule, beginning in the late 800s, boat racing became a competitive sport in which winners were promoted into the imperial navy. The imperial boats were always decorated like dragons, which symbolized imperial authority, and as other decorations fell out of use the races were called "dragon boat jingdu" or just "dragon boat competitions."

In the late 1200s the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing (Manchu) dynasties stopped sponsoring dragon-boat racing as a tool for naval recruitment and the races became entirely local affairs.

During the 19th century Britain and France used military power to control territorial and economic privileges in the Qing (Manchu) Empire, leading to pressure for reform, and dragon-boat racing that was seen as corrupt and disruptive faded from the scene. In the 1960s the Communist government of China banned the racing altogether.

Some sports die hard, and by 1976 the British-controlled government of Hong Kong developed dragon-boat racing to encourage tourism. During the next 10 years other locations around the world (especially in developed Asia, Europe and Canada) staged festival races on the Hong Kong model.

They developed a style using a relatively short boat, 12 meters long, with 20 seated paddlers, a drummer at the front and one person on the steering oar at the rear. The races became a popular club sport, leading to the formation of several national associations in the late 1980s.

For information about dragon-boat racing near you, visit the United States Dragon Boat Federation at