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Zongzi–Food for an Ancient Holiday

Tracing back almost 2,000 years, the sticky rice treat zongzi is eaten on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival
Published: June 9, 2024
Zongzi (粽子), or sticky rice meals wrapped in bamboo leaves, are an ancient dish that originated in China's Warring States period around 2300 years ago. Zongzi is closely associated with and eaten on the Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu (端午節). (Image: Fotolia)

The Duanwu festival, known in English as the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on Monday, June 10, in 2024. Duanwu (端午, the 5th day of the 5th month in the traditional Chinese calendar) is celebrated in East Asia and originates in the Warring States Period of ancient China. 

An iconic culinary feature of the Dragon Boat Festival are the sticky rice meals wrapped in bamboo leaves, known as zongzi (粽子). 

The history and evolution of this unique dish showcases the diversity of Chinese culture, with many regional variants of zongzi having appeared over time. 

Zongzi in ancient times

The earliest recorded mention of zongzi dates back to around 1,700 years ago in the Western Jin dynasty. In the book  “Feng Tu Ji,” it is stated: “Customarily, people wrap sticky rice with cattail leaves and boil it until cooked, consuming it between the fifth day of May and the summer solstice. At that time, zongzi was not called by that name, but “Jiao Shu,” as the sticky rice wrapped in cattail leaves resembled ox horns.

The Dragon Boat Races are a traditional summer event throughout Asia. Popularity is growing around the world, and spectators flock to see the fun and excitement. (Image: Marc Dalmulder via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

However, it’s likely that zongzi were eaten much earlier, as the Duanwu festival was a traditional holiday in the ancient nation of Chu in today’s south-central China. Dragon boat racing is said to have originated from attempts by the Chu people to retrieve the body of poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Miluo River to protest the corruption of the kingdom’s government. Zongzi, meanwhile, is said to have originated as the Chu folk threw tubes of bamboo filled with rice into the Miluo, hoping that the river’s fish would spare Qu Yuan’s body and take the bait instead. 

Later, people covered the rice in bamboo tubes with cattail leaves and wrapped them with five-colored silk threads for protection. Eventually, bamboo leaves were used to wrap the rice, with string used to bind them together. 

Symbology of the zongzi

People wrapped sticky rice with cattail leaves and cooked them in alkaline water made from plant ash until the grains turned yellow and stuck together, known in ancient poetry as “Jiao Shu Bao Jin” (horn rice wrapped in gold).

Later, zongzi wrapped in bamboo leaves appeared. A method from an ancient book described a sweet date and chestnut zongzi. Glutinous rice flour was mixed with honey water, kneaded into a long dough, about a foot long and two inches wide, with dates and chestnuts embedded on both sides, then wrapped with oiled bamboo leaves. However, zongzi at this time was not yet horn-shaped but could be compared to the shape of a pillow. 

(Image: Sun Mingguo/via Dajiyuan)

The Tang Dynasty’s “Youyang Zazu” records: “The zongzi of the Yu family, as white and translucent as jade.” By then, many brands of zongzi were available on the market, among which the “Yu family zongzi” stood out with its “white and translucent as jade” appearance, earning it a place on the famous list. The “like jade” Zongzi reflected the Tang people’s appreciation for the inner beauty of rice, valuing clarity and purity as the best, corresponding to the virtues of a Confucian gentleman.

The history of zongzi and the Dragon Boat Festival spans over two thousand years, with each era preserving old customs. Throughout history, new characteristics of zongzi have continuously emerged, evolving with different fillings and shapes, innovating while not forgetting the underlying tradition, enriching the cultural connotations of China and giving the ancient Dragon Boat Festival a tangible symbol to be enjoyed at the convergence of spring and summer.