Mom called to say that the loquats in the courtyard are ripe. “Monday is duan wu jie.” she said, “Remember you used to eat loquats with zong zi?”
Today is lunar May 5th, duan wu jie, known in the Western world as the Dragon Boat Festival. It is one of the four most important holidays in Chinese culture: the Chinese New Year, the Tomb Sweeping Day, the Mid-autumn Festival, and this one.
Chinese celebrate duan wu to commemorate a poet and a statesman who lived a long, long time ago, ca. 300 B.C. His name was Qu Yuan. He was known for his poetry, intellect, and his courage to speak up in the emperor’s court. He was at first quite influential to the emperor. Later, the officials felt jealous and threatened; they talked the emperor into sending him to exile. After years of hardship, Qu Yuan felt there is no place for his patriotism. At age 37, he threw himself into a river. Locals heard of this and raced their boats downstream, hoping to rescue his body. Having not found him, they wrapped sticky rice in bamboo leaves and threw them into the river. They thought these would feed the fish so they won’t feed on Qu Yuan’s body. Thus came the tradition of dragon boat race and zong zi.
Zong zi is sticky rice wrapped in green bamboo leaves. They are boiled in water for a long time until the rice soaks up the freshest fragrance of the bamboo leaves. They come in different sizes but often only in two shapes that we call 3-pointers or 4-pointers. They could be as simple as plain sticky rice with nothing in it, or as complicated as one’s imagination can create. For the past few weeks, zong zi is sold everywhere, dozens of varieties are available.
I told my kids the story behind duan wu jie. The younger one paused and said, “Why didn’t the locals eat fish? Instead of throwing so many zong zi into the river to prevent the fish, there would be fewer fish left, if all of us ate fish on this day.”