The Dragon Boat Festival, or "Duan Wu Jie", falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is widely celebrated, especially in Central and South China. Also known as "Duan Yang", however, this festival with river parades, dragon boat races, and rice offerings is used to be most commonly known as the Fifth Month Festival by the Chinese to commemorate Qu Yuan, the great poet and loyal political figure of the State of Chu in the third century B.C. The imperial court sowed discord between King Huai and Qu Yuan, causing the King to lose trust in the patriotic Qu Yuan and he was banished from the kingdom . As Qu Yuan witnessed the destruction of his motherland at the hands of these corrupt ministers, he expressed his rage and melancholy by writing one of China 's most famous elegies, the "Li sao" (Lament on Encountering Sorrow). Later, on the fifth day of the fifth month, Qu Yuan, in great sorrow and distress, threw himself into the Milo River in Hunan Province and drowned. When the people learned of his jump, many got into their boats and raced to find him, but to no avail. Such is the origin of dragon boat racing. When they realized he had drowned, they threw rice into the water as sacrifice or, according to some versions of the legend, to prevent the fish from eating his body
Of all the customs associated with the Dragon Boat Festival, possibly the most wide spread is the preparation and eating of "zong zi", a tasty glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in leaves with various kinds of filling. The tale behind "zong zi" also goes back to Qu Yuan's death. After the poet had killed himself, people cast sections of bamboo filled with rice into the river to honor his soul. One day, the soul of Qu Yuan appeared before a group of fisherman, crying out to them that he was starving because the rice offerings were being devoured by the river dragon before he could get them. Qu Yuan ordered the tubes to be closed with lily leaves and tied with silk threads in multiple colors to prevent the dragon from stealing them, for unknown reasons.
Today's "zong zi" is made similarly although there are many different kind of "zong zi", each with its own particular flavor, shape and type of leaf for wrapping. A serving of glutinous rice is wrapped in leaves and tied together with string, usually into a pyramid shape and sometimes the shaped of a cone or cylinder. Unique knots are used to identify what ingredients are inside the "zong zi" - beans, yam, pickled egg, dates, peanuts, fruits, yam, walnuts or melon seeds. The leaves used for wrapping can be of wild rice, palm, banana or bamboo. Bamboo-leaf "zong zi" is a specialty of South China.
As for flavor, the Beijing style is the sweetest, with a filling of coarse bean paste. Guangdong "zong zi" is either sweet-tasting, with a walnut, date or bean filling, or salty with fillings of ham, egg, salted meat, roast chicken, duck, chestnut or mushrooms. In Taiwan , vegetarian "zong zi" is made with dry peanut flakes while its meat-filled "zong zi" consists of fresh pork, chicken or duck with egg yolk, mushroom, dried shrimp, or fried scallions, which is my favorite of all the variations of "zong zi". "Zong zi" is best consumed with a cup of hot Chinese tea.
Though festival activities are much less than in the past, dragon boat races are still conducted on an extensive scale in the South, eating "zong zi" becomes evermore popular throughout the country. Food shops and street-side stalls supply this festival treat, but families prefer to make their own "zong zi".