Chinese Customs & Festivals

Dragon Boat

Dragon Boat Festival

Duan Wu, or the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. During the festival there are dragon boat races, and people eat zongzi, pyramid-shaped dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. They are made of glutinous rice and stuffed with pork, ham, chicken, dates, or sweet bean paste.

The custom of eating zongzi and holding boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival originated in memory of Qu Yuan (339-c. 278 BC), a renowned poet, politician, and thinker who lived over two thousand years ago in the Chu State during the Warring States Period. Qu, as an important official of the Chu State, advocated the union of the six states against Qin as well as political nobility. Qu was later exiled to what is now the eastern part of Hunan Province. During his banishment, however, Qu Yuan did not give up his fight; he continued to talk, teach, and write about his ideas. His works "Li Sao" and "Tian Wen" are literary masterpieces as well as invaluable records of China's ancient culture. When Qu Yuan heard that his country had been defeated by the powerful Qin State in 278 BC, he was plunged into such deep despair that he drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

Legend says that when the news spread of Qu's drowning, the people of the Chu State rushed to the scene in their boats to search for his body. Since every one wanted to be the first to find him, the search soon became a race. Because the court forbade any formal ceremony in Qu Yuan’s memory, local people held boat races each year on the anniversary of his death.

Various tales link Qu Yuan and the practice of eating zongzi. One story says people made dumplings and dropped them into the river to prevent Qu Yuan from becoming hungry. Another has its origin in superstition: People believed that a man's soul would not be permitted to enter heaven if his body was not intact; thus, they dropped zongzi into the river in the hopes that the fish would eat the zongzi instead of Qu Yuan’s body.

Although the stories about Qu Yuan are popular, some say that the Dragon Boat Festival originated even before his time. Back then, people considered themselves descendants of the dragon and worshipped a god-totem. As an offering, they would throw food wrapped in leaves or hollowed-out bamboo into the river, and then, to the sound of beating drums, the people would board their boats and race.

Whatever the case, boat-racing is popular along the waterways in many southern cities and towns. On the day of the festival, boats are decorated in the shape of a dragon, with a drum and a gong on each boat to set the pace. With the shout "Dragon away!," the race starts and the dragon boats skim over the water, powered by teams of skilled oarsmen who have been practicing for months. Strength, teamwork, and split-second timing are all important in the race. The oarsmen often sing songs with an emphatic, drum-beat rhythm as they race for the finish line, to the excited cheers from spectators on both banks of the river.

There are two main kinds of zongzi — the Guangdong style and the Jiaxing style. Although they are both in the shape of a pyramid, Guangdong zongzi are longer and include a more extensive range of ingredients. Jiaxing zongzi are smaller and are usually stuffed with either bean paste or pork.

There are a number of famous zongzi stores in China. The Wufang zongzi store in Jiaxing city, Zhejiang Province, is one of them. It has been in business for more than fifty years and is well-known for its high quality ingredients, distinctive flavors, and the careful preparation of its zongzi.

To make zongzi, first wash the glutinous rice quickly without allowing it to macerate, drain for about fifteen minutes, and then mix it with soy sauce, sugar, and a little salt. Many master chefs use cane sugar to sweeten the rice and make the dumpling look brighter. Next, dice the pork for the stuffing and marinate it with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, fine salt, kitchen wine, and monosodium glutamate. Then the wrapping begins. First fold the bamboo or the reed leaves into a cone. Fill it about one-third full with rice, before binding it tightly with thread. Finally, put the zongzi into a pot and boil for four hours before eating.

During the Dragon Boat Festival, zongzi make good presents for relatives and friends alike. They are also an inexpensive and delicious snack. Because some of the best ones, such as Wufang zongzi, will keep for over three months, they can be exported to areas such as Hong Kong, Macao, and other foreign countries.

Revised June 13, 2011