Why We Eat Zongzi During Dragon Boat Festival
Updated: Jun 11
by Margrit Amelunxen
Dragon Boat Festival or 端午节 duānwǔ jié is a traditional holiday in China, part of the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List and celebrated each year around the summer solstice. The date varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar and occurs on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month of the traditional Chinese calendar, a month which has always been considered as rather an unlucky one. Due to ancient belief, natural disasters and illness can happen easily during this time. In order to beware of such misfortune, people put special strong smelling fragrant herbs, spices or flowers into little fragrant bags or decorate their doors with these to drive the evil away.
Photo by Margrit Amelunxen
Two more traditions typical of this festival are eating the sticky rice dumplings called zongzi 粽子 and the popular dragon boat races. Both are connected to an ancient poet and minister of the Chu dynasty, Qu Yuan 屈原, who lived around 300 BC. He served in high offices, but when he opposed the king’s plans to ally with the state of Qin, he was banished from the court to Changsha, now capital of Hunan province. In his exiled days, he still cared much for his country and people and composed immortal poems including Li Sao (The Lament), Tian Wen (Heavenly Questions) and Jiu Ge (Nine Songs), which had far-reaching influences. When later the former ally state Qin turned into an invader, Qu Yuan committed suicide in the nearby Miluo river.
Photo by Margrit Amelunxen
Legend holds that the locals, who admired him greatly, raced out in their paddle boats to save him or at least to find his body. As his body could not be found, they made a lot of noise with drums and splashed their paddles to scare away fish and ghosts. It is said this is said how the dragon boat race started: as a gun is fired, you will see racers in dragon-shaped canoes pulling the oars hurriedly, accompanied by rapid drums. In the following thousands of years, the game spread to Japan, Vietnam, and Britain, as well as China's Taiwan and Hong Kong; and has developed into an aquatic event which features both Chinese tradition and modern sporting spirit. In 1980, it was listed into the state sports competition programs and has since been held every year. The award is called "Qu Yuan Cup."
The locals also dropped balls of glutinous rice into the river, so that the fish would eat these and spare Qu Yuan's body – which is why we eat zongzi at Dragon Boat Festival.
Qu Yuan’s story is the best known in modern China to explain the legendary origins of Dragon Boat Festival, but it is not the only one - there are two others which commemorate other personalities. Curious?
Look them up and enjoy Dragon Boat Weekend!
Want to see a video of how the world celebrates the dragon boat festival?
Margrit Amelunxen holds a master's degree in German and Romance languages and literature and has always had a thing for words. When her family moved to Shanghai in 2014, she jumped right into volunteering with SEA where some may still remember her as the long-term “newcomer person.” With volunteering, studying Mandarin, traveling and working in PR and marcomms for the last three years, she feels her China years went by in no time. After almost seven years of having a blast in ever-changing Shanghai, she repatriated to her home in greater Munich with a heavy heart. Six weeks later, she joined a publishing house as online editor for an upcoming product launch and can truly say: as one door closes, another opens.