Zongzi is one of the numerous Chinese culinary inventions that demonstrate the inventiveness of the Chinese. It is sticky rice or millet stuffed with such items as meat, chicken, red beans, or salted duck egg yolks, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and steamed. Chinese traditionally eat it during the Dragon Boat Festival, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar Calendar, but it can be enjoyed year round. The Dragon Boat Festival honors the Dragon God, who controls rivers and rainfall.
The festival also commemorates the poet Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.), who wrote some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature. In 278 B.C., learning of the capture of the state of Chi’s capital city Ying by General Bai Qi of the state of Qin during the Waring States Period, Qu Yuan is said to have collected folktales and written the lengthy poem of lamentation called “Lament for Ying.” Eventually, he committed suicide by wading into the Miluo River in today’s Hunan Province while holding a rock.
Popular legend has it that villagers carried their dumplings and boats to the middle of the river and desperately tried to save Qu Yuan after he immersed himself in the Miluo. In order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, they also beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles.
The legend continues that late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he died because he had taken himself under the river. Then, he asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the Dragon God. These packages became known as zongzi, although they are now wrapped in bamboo leaves instead of silk. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of the Dragon Boat Race.