The Legend of Zongzi

2013-06-05

There are many competing explanations for Duanwu Jie, better known as the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. All involve some combination of dragons, spirits, loyalty, honor and food—some of the most important traditions in Chinese culture. The festival’s main elements—now popular the world over—are racing long, narrow wooden boats decorated with dragons and eating sticky-rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves, called zongzi in Mandarin, and jung in Cantonese.

The story goes with Qu Yuan, an advisor in the court of Chu during the Warring States period of ancient China who was exiled by the emperor for perceived disloyalty. Qu Yuan had proposed a strategic alliance with the state of Qi in order to fend off the threatening state of Qin, but the emperor didn’t buy it and sent Qu Yuan off to the wilderness. Unfortunately, Qu Yuan was right about the threat presented by the Qin, which soon captured and imprisoned the Chu emperor. The next Chu king surrendered the state to their rivals. Upon hearing the tragic news, Qu Yuan in 278 B.C. drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province.

In the first origin story of zongzi, told during the early Han dynasty, Qu Yuan became a water spirit after his death. There are a variety of ways one might appease a ghost but the best and most enduring is to give it food.

For years after Qu Yuan’s death, his supporters threw rice in the water to feed his spirit, but the food, it was said, was always intercepted by a water dragon. (Master Chef Martin Yan, author and host of the pioneering Yan Can Cook TV show, suggests there may have been truth to this: “Some fresh water fish—like catfish—grow so huge that the Chinese considered them dragons.”) After a couple of centuries of this frustration, Qu Yuan came back to tell the people to wrap the rice in leaves, or stuff it into a bamboo stalk, so the dragon couldn’t eat it. It was only generations later that people began to retroactively credit Qu Yuan’s erstwhile lifesavers with starting the rice-ball-tossing tradition.

北京旅游网