If you’ve been to a Chinese market recently, you must have seen many fist-sized, dried-leave-wrapped pyramids and cubes on display. You may find them similar to Mexican tamales.
However, it is not cornhusks but bamboo leaves that wrap up the polygons, which are called zongzi in Chinese. Glutinous rice is their main ingredient. Their other ingredients vary, but the most common ones usually contain small pieces of stewed pork, salted egg yolk, boiled peanuts or chestnuts, and black mushrooms.
Chinese people may eat the rice polygons all year round but will definitely have them for the Day of Duan Wu, also known as Dragon Boat Festival, which is on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and can fall on any day between late May and late June of the Western calendar.
Duan Wu, a phonetic translation of “端午,” means “exact noontime”. Ancient Chinese believed the sun was exactly in the middle of the sky, without any slightest slant, at noon on Duan Wu, which therefore marked the beginning of summer.
However, the holiday has meant far more than the Chinese summer solstice since it began as a day of commemoration for a patriotic poet, Qu Yuan (340-278 BC).
During the period of Warring States, there were seven kingdoms in the territory of today’s China, and Qu Yuan once held a high-ranked official’s position in the Chu Kingdom, the southernmost one of the seven. He had great strategies to keep Chu strong, but other officials who were jealous of him persuaded the king to banish him.
Qu (which is his last name based on the Chinese name order) spent the next 20 years in exile, wandering around a lake area south of the Yangtze River. He let out his frustration through writing. His epics and lyrics have remained some of the most brilliant in Chinese literature.
After the Qin Kingdom conquered Qu’s beloved Chu Kingdom, he drowned himself in the Miluo, a tributary of the Yangtze, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month that year.
Many sympathizers took their boats out in an attempt to save him. When they finally gave up searching, they decided to wrap rice with reed or bamboo leaves and throw the little packs into the Miluo in hope that the fish would eat the rice rather than Qu’s body.
To commemorate the patriot, villagers threw leave-wrapped rice into the Miluo and rowed boats on the river on every anniversary of his death. The rice dish making and the boat rowing evolved into nationwide holiday customs. People gradually stopped throwing the rice polygons in the river, and ate them instead.
In the meantime, they decorated the bow of their row boat with a dragonhead sculpture, the most favorite Chinese symbol. Dragon boat rowing developed into a racing game held everywhere in China every Duan Wu. The team sport followed Chinese immigrants to the United States.
Today there are quite a number of dragon boat racing teams which often hold races in the Bay Area. Dragon Boat Festival therefore may sound familiar to the general public here, but the origin of the festival hasn’t been much publicized.
Even less known to non-Chinese is a love story that begins with a chance encounter on Dragon Boat Festival.
Once upon a time, a white snake, after praying for becoming human over a century, turned into a beautiful lady in a white dress. She met a well-educated young man from the wealthy Xu family by West Lake on a warm afternoon of Duan Wu.
It was sprinkling. He approached her and offered sharing his umbrella with her. They fell in love, married, and had a son. However, a self-righteous monk with supernatural powers saw Madame Xu’s hidden identity. He determined it to be harmful, and urged her husband to find out by mixing an herb called xung-huang in her rice wine. The drink turned her back to a white snake. Saddened by her husband’s betrayal, she was unable to fight. The monk easily captured her and imprsioned her underneath a pagoda by West Lake.
Xu realized too late that he loved her whether she was a woman or a snake. He lived the rest of his life in regret.
It may be hard to believe Dragon Boat Festival is associated with sad stories of the Xus’ separation and Qu’s suicide—it appears to be such a flamboyant holiday, with colorful boats, enthusiastic audiences, and delicious zongzi.
Perhaps it is the resilient nature of the Chinese that has transfigured a poet’s tragic death into a nation’s cheerful festivity. The Chinese have always been capable of moving on. Through millennia of tyrannies, wars, famines, and disasters, the aromatic steam from the zongzi carries an aged and ageless secret to survival.
Crystal Tai is a regular contributor to Patch. She has written a book to introduce Chinese customs through an imaginary calendar year, A Poetic Portal to Chinese Culture, which is for sale on Amazon.com and available for free to Kindle owners.