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Dragon Boat Festival

by M. Leung

Holidays and Celebrations

Fall Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(3) page(s): 5 and 8

In late spring and early summer all over China, people commemorated a great poet and statesman, Chu Yuan, whose name is now spelled in Pinyan as Qu Yuan. He lived around 340 - 278 BCE in the Kingdom of or what was better known as the State of Chu in an area around the Yangzi (Yangtze) River. It was here that he was the Prime Minister, and, it was here that he was known as the minister who tried to help the king build a strong economy.

This gentleman, a member of the ruling class, rose through court ranks very quickly. His success aroused jealousy among a lot of his fellow ministers making him the victim of slander and intrigue many times over. He was banished a goodly number of times, but when the government was in trouble, the old king always remembered him and recalled him to office. Once he straightened out the problems and the kingdom was on the way to stability and prosperity, the vicious circle of intrigue and banishment would start again.

During one of his dismissals, the king foolishly went to the State of Qin (once was spelled Chin) for a conference. He was held hostage and unfortunately died in captivity. His son became king and refused to avenge his father. Instead, he signed a peace treaty with the Chin and he gave up a lot of Chu land. The new king only wanted to enjoy the fruits of his ancestral labors. When Qu Yuan urged him to repent and tend to the business of the state, the new king instead stripped him of his office and banished him to a remote part of the country. There, Qu Yuan wrote poetry about his philosophy, the beauty of his country, and his love for it. Some of his poems became famous, perhaps the most famous is called 'Li Sao.'

This was the first time that works of poetry were attributed to one particular person. Later on, Sung Yu who was believed to be one of his disciples, also wrote poetry. As his poems were written in the same style, their works were collected later, and put together into one body of work known as the Songs of Qu. It is because of this book of poems that Qu Yuan became known as the father of Chinese Poetry.

Qu Yuan kept hoping that one day the king would wake up and realize that he needed his help. He hoped he would recall him to help turn the country around. Unfortunately, the king squandered the whole treasury of his kingdom. When Qu Yuan realized that his hope would never materialize, in despair, he committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River hugging a big piece of stone to prevent his body from surfacing.

When his countrymen found out what he had done, they organized a flotilla along this river in an effort to save him. Afraid that water creatures would devour him, the people wrapped food in bamboo, lotus, and other leaves, and they threw them into the river. Qu Yuan was never found. The day he committed suicide was the fifth day of the fifth moon in the lunar calendar. It was the year 278 BCE. Today, another name for the holiday that celebrates this event is the Feast of the Fifth Moon.

Every year since Qu Yuan jumped into that river in what is now Hunan, the Chinese people commemorate this great poet, patriot, and statesman. They do so holding Dragon Boat races and they make and eat food wrapped in leaves. This food is called zongzi. Since ancient times, pointed bamboo leaves are the leaves of choice used to wrap these small packages of rice and other things. Many of them are dropped into the water as sacrifices or to prevent the fish and other sea creatures from eating or otherwise hurting his body; they are also put in to appease the soul of this royal minister.

Dragon boats are long narrow boats that look very much like canoes; and they are used for racing. The bamboo leaf wrappings, called zongzi, are shaped like these boats. In Hong Kong and Guangdong most of the real boats are large, with fifty oarsmen each. Those in them paddle with all their might while crowds line the river banks and watch from the shore. At the front end of the boat is a dragon’s head. At the other or rear end, the tail of a dragon is attached; hence the name of these boats.

Different Chinese organizations, even athletic teams, support one or more boats. They dress in local colors and hold competitions to determine the fastest of the boats. Team members sit inside and row while a drummer sitting at one end of the boat, usually the rear, beats a huge drum to keep them rowing in rhythm. At the front of each boat is a look-out whose primary role was searching for the dead body of Qu Yuan. A secondary one, then and now, is to toss the wrapped rice packages into the water to feed Qu Yuan’s soul.

The origin of the boats and the races are themselves in question. One theory is that they began among the Yueh people long before, in the Spring and Autumn Period 770 - 476 BCE and were later tied to this memorable event. The dragon boat races continue to this day in many parts of China and elsewhere, particularly among southern Chinese. In Beijing, they are celebrated with stiff competitions and lots of cheering people lining the shores. In Hong Kong, the International Dragon Boat Race has been held every year at least since 1976. As matter of fact, these races are one of the noisiest water sports I know. They are also celebrated in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and many other places around the world. It is ironic that we commemorate this solemn figure in such light-hearted activities. This past year, the Dragon Boat Festival fell on June 25th. Next year it will be on a different date. The races themselves are scheduled on the date of this major traditional Chinese festival or one on dates reasonably close to it. In Hong Kong, next year they will be on June 30th and July 1st. This might be a good time to look at a Chinese calendar and understand that they are lunar calendars; so dates do change from year to year. Can you locate which day is for the Dragon Boat Festival? Remember, it is the fifth day of the fifth month.

Getting back to the zongzi, there are two main kinds. These dumplings are specially made to match and mimic those thrown into the water during the festival races. Though they are called zongzi, also spelled by some as zhong zi, my family always spelled them chungtse. These differences occur using different transliterations from the Chinese. The Pinyin way did not begin until the late 1940's, 1949 to be exact. That is why you see many spellings of Chinese words. However, throughout this article, Pinyin has been used.

One of the dumpling types that we like is sweet, the other is salty. For your enjoyment, I have provided recipes for both of them. As a matter of fact, they are so good that these days Chinese bakeries and supermarkets are selling them all year long. You can practice making them and enjoy them now so you will be prepared for next year’s Dragon Boat festivities.
Ms Leung was born in Shanghai, educated in Hong Kong, and received her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in New York. She taught at Amherst Central School and soon hopes to have more time to write about her beloved birthplace.
Sweet Zongzi with Bean Paste
2 Tablespoons sweet rice (also known as glutinous rice)
2 Tablespoons oil
2 Tablespoons lime water
36 dried bamboo leaves, approximately
10 ounces red bean paste
String to wrap them into packages
sugar, honey, or syrup (optional)
1. Wash sweet rice and soak in water overnight. Drain rice and add oil and lime water and mix well in a big bowl.
2. Wash and soak dried bamboo leaves. Trim the pointed ends so that three to four sheets put together lattice fashion form a rectangle with a pointed top like a pyramid. Keep leaves soaked in clean water until ready to use.
3. Divide the rice mixture into twelve equal parts. Put one part on one of the rectangles formed by three to four bamboo leaves.
4. Divide the red bean paste into six parts. Put one part of the red bean paste on top of the rice mixture already on the bamboo leaves. Add another part of the rice mixture on top of the red bean paste. Fold the bamboo leaves over length-wise and cover the rice pile. Bend the ends under on both sides and loosely tie a piece of string around the bamboo package. After tying up the package, shake it gently to see if you can hear the rice rattling inside. If you cannot hear any sound, the package is tied too tightly. Untie and do it over again.
5. When the materials are evenly distributed and wrapped, put the packages into a big pot and fill the pot with water to cover them. The ingredients should yield six large packages or twelve smaller ones. Then, bring the pot to the broil, lower the heat to medium, and cook them for about six hours. Use tongs to take out the packages. Untie and then unwrap them. Serve, or cool and store for later use.
Note: These packages freeze well. You can serve them with sugar, honey, or syrup.
Salty Zongzi
2 pounds sweet rice (also known as glutinous rice)
1 teaspoon oil
2 pounds mung beans
1 Tablespoon sugar
4 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms
2 teaspoons salt
8 salted egg-yolks
8 fresh chestnuts, peeled
2 teaspoons five-spice powder
4 ounces of lotus seeds, cleaned
2 teaspoons thin soy sauce
24 dried bamboo leaves
8 dried lotus leaves
1 pound roast pork, cut into eight pieces (optional)
String to wrap them into packages
1.Wash and soak rice and mung beans separately in clean water overnight. Drain each ingredient separately, and set aside.
2. Add oil, sugar, and salt to rice and mix well. Then divide the rice mixture into sixteen parts. Divide the mung beans into sixteen parts and set aside for later use.
3.Prepare the leaves by washing and soaking both the lotus leaves and the bamboo leaves. Then trim the lotus leaves, or fold each one into a square and remove or trim the pointed ends of bamboo leaves.
4. Put three bamboo leaves on top of one square of lotus leaf.
5. Clean and cut the stems off shiitake mushrooms and soak them in clean warm water until they are soft. Remove and discard the stems.
6. Prepare the (roast pork,) lotus seeds and chestnuts, as follows: If using dried lotus seeds, pre-soak them until they are soft; discard any bitter shoots inside. Cook the chestnuts until soft.
7. Put the (roast pork,) chestnuts, lotus seeds, and mushrooms in a bowl and add five spice powder and soy sauce and mix them well and divide this mixture into eight equal parts.
8. On the stack of lotus and three bamboo leaves, put one part of rice mixture, one part of mung beans and (one part of the roast pork mixture and on the pork mixture) add one salted egg-yolk. Put another part of mung bean on this and then another of the rice mixture.
9. Pick up the four sides of the leaves and wrap the mixture into a cube-like package and tie it up with some of the string.
10. Repeat Steps 9 and 10, making these packages until all the materials are used. This makes eight packages.
11. Put the packages into a big pot and fill with enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about seven hours. Drain and either serve, refrigerate, or freeze the packages until ready to eat them. Before eating, remove the string and leaves, and serve.
Note: In the North, people use soy sauce as a dip; in the South, some prefer theirs with granulated sugar.

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