The Duanwu Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, is a traditional holiday originating in China, occurring near the summer solstice. “The festival now occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional Chinese calendar, which is the source of the festival’s alternative name, the Double Fifth Festival. The Chinese calendar is lunisolar, so the date of the festival varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar.” — Wikipedia
The Duanwu Festival, also called Zhongxiao Festival in China, is a festival commemorating fealty and filial piety. It is said to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan was a loyal and highly esteemed minister, who brought peace and prosperity to the state but ended up drowning himself in a river as a result of being vilified. People got to the spot where he drowned himself by boat and cast glutinous dumplings into the water, hoping that the fishes would eat the dumplings instead of Qu Yuan’s body. For thousands of years, the festival has been marked by rice dumplings and dragon boat races, especially in the southern provinces where there are many rivers and lakes.
There are many practices and activities on the Dragon Boat Festival, including dragon boat racing, eating Zongzi, drinking Realgar Wine (Xionghuang Wine), etc.
The History and Development
The origin of Zongzi (Sticky Rice Dumpling) in China can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period (approximately 771- 476 BC). It was first used in ceremonies to worship ancestors and gods. Since the Jin Dynasty (266 – 420 AD), rice dumpling had become an iconic food for Dragon Boat Festival. From ancient times on, every year at the beginning of the lunar calendar in May, each family in China has to prepare glutinous rice, wash the leaves, and make some rice dumplings to celebrate the Dragon-Boat Festival. Both the selection of the leaves and the fillings for the rice dumplings have changed over time, from a traditional style to a modern style. As one of the most profound traditional food in Chinese history and culture, rice dumpling had also spread around some Asian countries. In countries like Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, etc., you can see the habit of eating rice dumplings at places where overseas Chinese live.
From region to region, there are huge differences in the selection of stuffing and leaves for a rice dumpling. Even the shape and method of wrapping can vary. For example, in the old days, when people prevailed to sacrifice with ox horns in the Han and Jin dynasties, the shape of the rice dumpling was designed to be more angular for the sake of the ceremony. In general, the shapes of rice dumplings are tetrahedral, rectangular, or conic.
Qu Yuan was a poet, politician and minister who was born and raised in the State of Chu during the Warring States period of ancient China. He was famous for his intelligence, political ideology, and sense of integrity. He served an important position as an official under King Huai of Chu and was loved by the people.
In 278 BC, Qin’s military invaded the capital of Chu and successfully took it over. Qu Yuan was facing the invasion of his homeland with a broken-heart. He saw the perdition of the state, but he could not bear to abandon his own country. Thus, on May 5th, after finishing his last poem of “Huai Sha”, he carried a heavy stone and jumped from the bridge into the Mi Luo River, leaving a mass of great poems and his patriotic spirit.
The people lived in Chu mourned sorrowfully after hearing Qu Yuan’s death. His followers flocked to the bank, rowed their boats and tries to salvage his body from the river. In order to prevent the physical body of Qu Yuan from being destroyed, fishermen took out rice balls, eggs, and other foods, and threw them into the river to feed the marine animals. They believed that if the fish were full, they would not bite Qu Yuan’s body. An old wise man took out an altar of yellow realgar wine and poured it into the river. He said the powdered realgar (which is a yellow-orange arsenic sulfide mineral) in the wine could faint the dragon and beasts underwater and make them incapable of harming Qu Yuan. Afterward, people afraid that rice balls were eaten by dragons. Thus, people came up with the idea of wrapping the rice ball with leaves and tying up with colored rope. This later developed into rice dumplings.
Since then, every year on the fifth of May of Chinese lunar calendar, there is a custom of holding dragon boat races, eating rice dumplings and drinking the yellow wine to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan.