Dragon Boat Festival Legends and Recipes

Dragon Boat Festival Legends, Traditions, and a Recipe for Zongzi Dumplings

The making of Chinese rice dumpling
Making a Chinese rice dumpling (zongzi). Getty Images/Agnes Leung

There are few sites more spectacular than a fleet of boats decorated to look like dragons racing to the finish line, paddlers moving their oars in one fluid motion while the drummer thumps out a steady rhythm. Once practically unknown outside the Chinese community, today you'll find enthusiastic crowds cheering on racers participating in dragon boat festivals everywhere from Rome, Italy to Seattle, Washington. But the dragon boat festival is much more than an athletic event. It is the third largest festival in the Chinese calendar, following the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon festival. And, like these two other traditional holidays, food plays an important and symbolic role in the festivities.

The Dragon Boat Festival and Qu Yuan

The most popular story about the festival revolves around the life and death of one of China's most famous citizens. Qu Yuan was both a statesman and China's first known poet. During his lifetime, he served as Minister of Law and Ordinance for his home state of Chu in southern China. Unfortunately, Qu Yuan lived during the Warring States period (481 - 221 B.C.), when larger, more powerful states were trying to consolidate their power. One of these states, Qin in the north, was determined to control the state of Chu. Qin leaders gave the King of Chu a peace treaty to sign, which they had no intention of honoring. Suspicious of their motives, Qu Yuan advised the king not to sign the treaty. Unfortunately, the king was threatened by Qu Yuan's stature, believing the poet was trying to gain greater political power in the government. Not only did he sign the treaty, but he banished Qu Yuan to a remote region in Hunan province. Eventually, Chu was defeated by the stronger Qin state.

It is thought that the news of Chu's defeat destroyed Qu Yuan's will to live. As a result, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 278 B.C., he committed suicide by grasping a large rock and throwing himself into the Miluo River.

Local fisherman raced to their boats to recover his body, beating drums and splashing their paddles on the water to scare away the fish. But it was all to no avail. In one version of the legend, they began throwing rice on the water as a sacrifice to their dead hero, and to nourish his spirit. One night, the image of Qu Yuan appeared to one of the fishermen in a dream. In the dream, the poet revealed that the fish were eating the rice. He asked that the rice be wrapped in silk to protect it. Later, the silk was replaced with bamboo leaves.

Role of Zongzi Dumplings in the Dragon Festival

In another version, the rice packets were meant for the fish, in an effort to keep them from devouring Qu Yuan's body. But whichever version you choose to believe, the death of Qu Yuan gave rise to both the dragon boat races and celebrating the day with zongzi -- delicious dumplings made with glutinous rice that is stuffed in bamboo leaves.

Each region of China has its own special form of zongzi. For example, in southern China, you will find pork soaked in soy sauce or bean paste in the middle of the glutinous rice. Meanwhile, Beijing zongzi is often made with dried dates. Other types of fillings include mashed red beans, egg, and poultry. There is also plain zongzi, made only with glutinous rice and designed to be eaten with honey or sugar. Zongzi can be many shapes, but the most common shape is pyramidal or triangular.

Making zongzi is a difficult proposition. Even experienced Chinese cooks find it a challenge to manipulate the bamboo leaves into a funnel shape and place the rice inside. But if you want to try, here are three recipes to help you celebrate this truly unique event.

Zongzi Dumpling Recipes

  • Traditional Zongzi Sticky Rice Dumplings:  A basic recipe using glutinous rice, bamboo leaves, and Chinese dates.
  • Sticky Rice Dumplings the Easy Way: Features a healthy chicken and shiitake mushroom filling wrapped up in banana leaves and either steamed, barbecued, or baked in the oven.
  • Zong Zi - The Traditional Chinese Food: An overview of Zongzi and what it means in Chinese culture, plus another basic recipe.