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Zongzi and the Dragon Boat Festival

Chinese culture has many, many festivals, commemorating some rather unusual events. Dragon Boat Festival is one such festival. This year, it fell on June 15. The main thing to do on this day is to eat zongzi, the glutinous rice dumpling, as it is translated into English, though I think that scarcely describes it.

In some places, they actually do have races of boats that are colorfully decorated with dragon designs, but I have never seen such a race. I have, however, eaten lots of zongzi. I was given several this year. You can buy them commercially and they are commonly eaten as a snack food, but at this time of year, you are likely to receive homemade ones. The rice is a glutinous rice and is very sticky. The rice may be white, as shown above, and it may have some red bean paste inside, though the ones you see here had nothing inside. Sometimes the rice is brown from a sauce and inside is a small chunk of ham. In any case, each one is wrapped in reed leaves and steamed, I suppose, for a long time. At first, I thought they were rather tasteless, but I have developed a taste for them now, and I like to eat them, though once a year is enough.

The origin of the zongzi is as strange as the food itself. It seems that there was a Chinese poet and official (Chinese officials in ancient times were always poets; that was the mark of an educated and capable person) named Qu Yuan (pronounced a little like "chew you ann.") He was an official in the kingdom of Chu, in about 340-278 BC, which was before China had been unified into a nation. China has a tradition of ministers who give advice to the king, or emperor, and Qu Yuan was such a minister. Qu Yuan advised the king of Chu to prepare for war because the state of Qin was poised to devour his state. But the king thought he was safe, since the emperor of Qin seemed to be focusing on other, weaker, states. But, eventually, Qin did attack Chu, and the Chu kingdom was defeated.

Qu Yuan was so distraught over this that he committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River. His countrymen, upon learning of this tragedy, rushed to the scene in small boats and tried to find his body. They failed to find it, so they made the dumplings wrapped in reed leaves and threw them into the river so the fish would eat the dumplings and not Qu Yuan's body. Later, it became a ritual to eat the zongzi on the anniversary of Qu Yuan's death and to hold dragon boat races.

I am always amazed that Chinese remember so many small things from their very long history, and that these traditions can be passed down generation by generation.