The Hidden Symbolism Behind Eating Zòngzi During Dragon Boat Festival

While the customary Chinese celebration known as the Dragon Boat Festival isn't perhaps as widely known in the U.S. as is Lunar New Year, if you ever get the chance to attend, it's a can't-miss event. As one of the four biggest traditional festivals in China that has been honored for more than 2,000 years, per Travel China Guide, it mixes the beauty of a Lantern Festival with the excitement of a Henley regatta. Held annually for three days, Dragon Boat Festival occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month –- which is not the same day as Cinco de Mayo since China follows the lunar calendar. This year, it will be celebrated June 12-14, 2021.

As the festival's name implies, a large part of the festivities revolve around boats -– specifically, boat races involving teams of rowers competing to be the first to have their dragon-headed prow cross the finish line. Over time, it has transformed into a major sporting event not just in China, but also countries including Japan, Vietnam, the UK, US, and Canada. As with any festival worth the name, however, there's also plenty of delicious food to eat, particularly the special dumplings known as zòngzi. Tasty as they may be, their backstory is filled with tragedy.

The sad reason zòngzi are part of this festival

Travel China Guide describes zòngzi as rice dumplings cooked in a distinctive pyramid shape and wrapped in reed leaves (China Highlights adds that the leaves may also be bamboo). Fillings include meat, egg yolks, sweetened bean paste, or, in the north of China, jujube fruit. And there's a very specific reason zòngzi are associated with the Dragon Boat Festival.

The annual celebration was thought to have originated as a way to commemorate the poet and statesman Qu Yuan who lived in ancient China around 340-278 BC and had a great love for his homeland. Fearing that his state was about to be invaded and conquered by a rival, he threw himself into the river on the 5th day of the 5th month so he wouldn't have to live to see it. His neighbors tried to rescue him via their rowboats, but failed. Rather than allowing his body to be eaten by fish, they threw zòngzi in the water so the sea life would fill up on dumplings instead. 

As the story goes, this evolved into an annual celebration where people row out into the river to feed the fishes on the anniversary of Qu Yuan's death. Luckily the Dragon Boat Festival has evolved over the past few millennia to the point where people now get to enjoy the delicious dumplings rather than sharing them with the denizens of the deep.

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