By Yuan Quan
BEIJING, June 9 (Xinhua) -- "Paddles ready? Go!"
The crew of the small dragon boat begin pounding the water with their paddles to the rhythm of the drummer at the bow. Ignoring the splashing, the dragon boaters focus on powering the boat forward.
Welcome to a practice session of TBT, or Towards the Best Team, a group of amateurs who assemble twice a week to train on Beijing's Houhai Lake.
They compete not only to win races, but to tempt other urbanites to join them on the water. Dragon boating may be a tradition dating back thousands of years, but it can seem remote from the lives of modern Chinese, especially in the dry northern cities.
TBT's best chance of changing that comes with China's annual Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday celebrated this year from June 9-11.
Dragon Boating is the perfect way to wind down after a hard week at work, say many of the 200 members of TBT, although few of them knew much about the sport before taking up their paddles.
Zhang Na and her Canadian friend Victor Kok established the club in 2002. It has a high turnover of members as boaters go abroad or leave for other reasons like pregnancy, but the sport continues.
"We are always seeing new faces introduced by old members," says Zhang.
Fifteen years ago, when most of the participants were expats, many came in the hope of practicing English. But a love of paddling soon became their prime motivation.
Beijing native Xia Tian, 34, finds the experience exhilarating.
Before joining this year, Xia spent his working days in the office, becoming increasingly estranged from physical activity. Dragon boating has lured him back into the open air. "On the boat, I enjoy the sunlight and the cool breeze. It's very relaxing," he says.
Such is the fervor of the participants that the paddling does not stop when the weather is less hospitable, however. "We once rowed in down jackets in temperatures 28 degrees below zero in northeast China," says Xing Ou, a senior member who encourages others to stick with weekly training through her Weibo microblog.
They usually paddle about 5,000 meters, 10 times the distance of an ordinary dragon boat race, and they train in all weathers.
Club members have competed against amateur and professional teams in dragon boat contests around the country.
SPORT OF LEGEND
Dragon boat racing is thought to have begun as a ceremony commemorating the death of Qu Yuan, a poet during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).
Qu was a loyal minister of the State of Chu, but he was banished from the government due to the influence of corrupt and jealous officials.
In 278 B.C., while in exile, Qu learnt that his state had been invaded and devastated by an enemy. Distraught, he drowned himself in the Miluo River, which drains into Dongting Lake in today's Hunan Province.
The common people, on learning of his death, rushed out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save him. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body.
The anniversary of Qu's death, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, later became the Dragon Boat Festival.
Today, in south China, especially in Qu's hometown in Hubei Province, dragon boat races are still big events, but the need for a large body of water and professional coaching are a challenge for many ordinary people who want to take up the sport.
Clubs like TBT help make it more accessible.
MORE THAN PADDLING
"I used to exercise by myself, hiking and running. But now, I'm more motivated with a group of people," says Xia. "I'm not alone anymore."
Zhang Na says her 15 years in the club have not only made her an excellent boater, but more importantly a good communicator. She is more open-minded and easygoing, and has a strong sense of team spirit.
"The sport requires you to work with others, feel their pulse and breath, and adapt yourself to the whole team, so that the boat can move fast. I believe it also applies to my daily work."
TBT members make friends, and romances have even begun on the boat. Zhang says the sport also meets demand for social contact among white-collar workers who are living alone in big cities.
The boaters use contest prize money and donations to create club T-shirts and buy equipment. They put training videos and photos on their Weibo e-magazine and WeChat account.
In terms of a message to tempt newbies to try dragon boating, perhaps one member put it best when he wrote on the TBT WeChat account: "My heart soars whenever I go dragon boating."