Many traditional Chinese foods are intended to honor either the gods or divine persons in history. Zong Zi - a glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves - is no exception. It is meant to honor Qu Yuan (340-278 BC.), the pioneer poet of ancient China.
Qu Yuan was a famous poet who was also concerned about the fate of his government. Unfortunately his stature aroused the jealousy of the king, who banished him to a remote area. The poet despaired of the government and its policies. When the state's capital was captured by enemies, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River (on May 5th according to the Chinese lunar calendar). The Chinese people felt this loss deeply, as he was a much beloved poet. Local folk searched for him in the river, meanwhile dropping dumplings of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves into the river in order to keep the fishes from attacking Qu Yuan's body.
Since that time, it has been customary on this day to enjoy Zong Zi dumplings as a memorial to the patriotic poet.
In addition, there is also a festival called the Duan Wu or Dragon Boat Festival. If you ever visit China during the Dragon Boat Festival, you can't miss the nationwide custom of enjoying Zong Zi. You are sure to be impressed with the delicacy of this snack, and with the faint scent of the leaves imprinted on the skin of the dumplings.
I still remember making and enjoying Zong Zi as a child. Along with my brothers and sisters I hovered around the stove, begging to have a taste, unable to wait until they were cooked. We were very eager since the food was made only once a year on May 5th. But now it is quite different. The Chinese Zong Zi is not only made for the Duan Wu Festival. It is available at any time of the year. And local areas have developed their own styles and varieties of dumpling.
The main ingredient of Zong Zi is the glutinous rice. The next most important ingredient is the bamboo or reed leaves which form the wrapping and make Zong Zi distinct from other types of Chinese dumplings.
The filling often contains either dates or sweetened red bean paste. These are the ones I once had in my family. I like them much more than the ones with meat but my brother doesn't. He says the meat ones are terrific.
The leading place for the food is Jia Xing, an ancient town in Zhejiang province. Many different types of Zong Zi are made here. At Wu Fang Zhai, a monopolistic food processor, you'll find all the ingredients you need: the dumplings with meat, sweetened bean paste and chestnuts, lotus seeds, dates, and yolk of egg.
If the materials are available to you, it is quite possible for you to make Chinese Zong Zi at home; both for pleasure and maybe also to honor the great poet, Qu Yuan. By the way, in the year 2006 the Dragon Boat Festival happens to fall on May 31st, according to the solar calendar. You'd better prepare a net for the fish.