Festivals: The tradition of eating zongzi at the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, or more correctly the Duanwu Festival, as well as being identified with dragon boat racing, is also strongly associated with other traditional Chinese customs and practices. Probably the most widespread and participated in is preparing and eating a customary rice dish called zongzi. It should be noted there are various ways to spell this and may vary with region.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan – Painting by Chen Hongshou – Public Domain

The tradition of making and eating zongzi is strongly associated with the death of the great and much loved poet and patriot Qu Yuan. His suicide by drowning in a river was seen as a selfless act of patriotism by the people who loved him and who paid tribute to him by throwing rice balls into the river for his soul to eat. According to legend, his soul materialized before fishermen and began wailing that he was starving because the dragon in the river was eating the rice they threw to him. He told them to wrap the rice balls with lily leaves and asked them to seal it by tying it with silk thread. Eventually zongzi became wrapped in bamboo, or other kinds of leaves depending on region and availability.

Traditional Zongzi

Zongzi is a glutinous, or sticky, rice dumpling, with a filling. It is traditionally wrapped in bamboo leaves, though other leaves may be used depending on availability and region of China. The rice is usually formed around the filling into pyramid shapes, though cylinder and cone shapes can be used.  The leaves are then wrapped around the shape and tied with string with a unique knot used to identify the type of filling. There are many different fillings such as pickled egg, peanuts beans, yam, melon seeds, dates, fruits, walnuts, or yam. The leaves can be palm, banana, wild rice, or bamboo.

Yellow Zongzi by Benjwong – Public Domain

Different regions have their own speciality zongzi. In Beijing the filling is sweet and made from a bean paste. In Guangdong there are two favourites. One has a sweet filling of date, walnut, or bean filling and the other is salty with meats such as chicken, ham duck and eggs, mushrooms, or chestnuts.  An increasing number of shops and stalls sell zongzi on festival days and its popularity grows. Mostly in China the of making zongzi for eating and the giving as a gift is still practiced widely and often regarded as a family activity.

Zongzi Worldwide

Along with the Dragon Boat Festival, the popularity of eating zongzi is now growing around the world with Dragon Boat Festivals being held regularly in South East Asia and many western countries including the UK, USA, Canada, and Europe. Undoubtedly, each country will add something to the tradition and bring new flavours to the dish to be enjoyed.

References and attributions

Copyright July 31, 2009 zteve t evans

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