Dragon Boat Racing in China

1 August 2018

In March 2018, Kellogg students Bastiaan van Dalen (MSc Applied Landscape Archaeology) & Carla V. Fuenteslópez (MSc Nanotechnology for Medicine and Health Care) represented the University of Oxford at the first Elite University Dragon Boat Championships in Hangzhou, China. Organised by Zhejiang University, the competition brought 25 teams together to compete on the Jinsha Lake, including participants from Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here they tell us about the experience.

Dragon Boat Racing is a beloved Chinese tradition that has been around for 2,000 years in the southern part of the country and is rapidly gaining popularity around the world, mainly in the United States. The simplest and perhaps most Oxfordian way to explain it is to compare it with a rowing boat where instead of 8 rowers, 10 paddlers are seated in pairs with one person in charge of steering while a drummer (yes that is correct) is responsible for keeping the paddlers synchronised with the beat of the drum. To top it up, the boats mirror a dragon’s body, with an ornately carved head at the bow and a tail at the stern. Following the tradition, during the opening ceremony of the Dragon Boat Festival or, in this case, championships, the dragon’s eyes are painted on the boat to ‘grant it life’.

Zhejiang University – also known as ‘the Oxford of China’ – invited the University of Oxford to take part in the event in Hangzhou, located in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Given that there is no ‘Oxford University Dragon Boat Club’, the Oxford University Canoe & Kayak Club (OUCKC) rose up to the challenge. Without any previous training of Dragon Boat Racing, 13 Oxford students (including a kayak champion and several rowers) headed off to the other side of the world.

The host university not only financed the whole trip (and stash), they allowed us to experience a bit of the Chinese culture through amazing culinary delights of the region and a tour to the historic Lingyin Temple complex.

In order to prepare us for the event, we were invited to attend a training camp with the national coach of the Chinese Dragon Boat Team. While for the other teams the objective was to familiarise themselves with the local conditions and equipment provided by the university, we took the opportunity to basically learn how to dragon boat. Most of us Oxonians had never even seen a dragon boat before this day!

The event, which took place over several days, encompassed three disciplines: Dragon Boat Racing (200m sprints and a 2,000m long course), SUP8 paddle boarding, and kayaking. Proudly, our Oxford team (also known as ‘cow – water place – big school’ in Chinese) won a gold and a silver medal, as well as finishing in 8th place in a sport none of us had ever done before, or even heard of, against 25 university teams from the United States, Macau and China. All of them had been training year-round, with some teams holding several training sessions a week (in a fashion similar to our Oxford Blues).

As if representing Oxford in a worldwide tournament in a sport that none of us had ever heard about was not enough, we were also featured on Chinese national television. ‘Unique’ as the experience was, we actually managed to pull off another win for the University of Oxford in a fascinating game show on the popular program Keep Running!, which has an estimated viewership of 50 million people!

Needless to say, this one-of-a-kind experience made us fall in love with Dragon Boat Racing and we are even looking into creating an official club at the university so that more students can enjoy this exciting sport.

Without a doubt, it was a fantastic experience to represent Oxford at an international level, both in sports and on television! As exciting as all the attention of the Chinese press and local fans was (yes, we actually managed to get our own fanbase!), taking part in the championships provided us with an amazing sense of pride to be part of this university. Most of all, our participation in the championships was symbolic for what makes the University of Oxford and its students so special – academic excellence, determination, and passion.