Zongzi, a Multi-flavoured Del­i­cacy

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Liu Xian­shu, pol­ished by Mark Zuiderveld

It is a tra­di­tional Chi­nese food made of gluti­nous rice stuffed with dif­fer­ent fill­ings and wrapped in bam­boo leaves, eaten dur­ing Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val to com­mem­o­rate pa­tri­otic poet Qu Yuan.

Early sum­mer sees green leaves of reeds grow­ing by wa­ter ponds sway­ing in the breeze, stir­ring a mood of yearn­ing in the air. This is the most com­fort­able time of year. Early in the morn­ing, el­derly folk cut and col­lect leaves of waist-high reeds grow­ing by the wa­ter. When the sun­set glow lights up the western sky, zongzi's fra­grance slith­ers from house­hold kitchens. Zongzi is a tra­di­tional Chi­nese food made of gluti­nous rice stuffed with dif­fer­ent fill­ings wrapped in bam­boo, reeds or other large flat leaves. On smelling the fra­grance, kids play­ing in door­ways will hurry home, and peo­ple get­ting off work feel more ea­ger to re­turn.

Zongzi is tra­di­tion­ally eaten dur­ing the Duanwu Fes­ti­val (Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val) on the fifth day of the fifth lu­nar month to com­mem­o­rate Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC), a great Chi­nese ro­man­tic poet dur­ing the War­ring States Pe­riod (475–221 BC), as well as to ex­press a yearn­ing for their home­town.

Among folk­lores about the fes­ti­val's ori­gin, the story of Qu Yuan is most com­mon. Qu Yuan was a pa­tri­otic poet serv­ing the State of Chu as its min­is­ter. As le­gend goes, in 278 BC, the poet, who was grieved due to the cap­ture of the coun­try's cap­i­tal, com­mit­ted sui­cide into the Miluo River (in present-day Hu­nan Prov­ince) while hold­ing a rock. In or­der to dis­tract fish in the river away from Qu Yuan's body, vil­lagers threw rice held in bam­boo pipes to feed them.

Ac­cord­ing to Chuxue Ji ( Writ­ings for El­e­men­tary In­struc­tion) mainly com­piled by Xu Jian in the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907) at the or­der of the em­peror, in the Jianwu Era (AD 25–58) of the Han Dy­nasty (206 BC–AD 220), a na­tive of Chang­sha dreamed about Qu Yuan. In his dream, a man in­tro­duced him­self as a Sanlü Doc­tor (the of­fi­cial po­si­tion of Qu Yuan), and told him that their sac­ri­fices were all stolen by a dragon in the river; in the fu­ture, they could have their of­fer­ings wrapped up in mug­wort leaves and tied with silk threads of five colours, as the dragon was scared most of these two things. Grad­u­ally, peo­ple be­gan to re­place bam­boo pipes with mug­wort, reed, and lo­tus leaves.

With im­prove­ment of peo­ple's un­der­stand­ing, peo­ple's main con­cern on wor­ship­ping na­ture is re­placed by the memoriam of Qu Yuan, a lo­cal his­tor­i­cal fig­ure,

which has given the fes­ti­val a new mean­ing.

Although the Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val was es­tab­lished prior to Qu Yuan's time, af­ter sev­eral thou­sand years, a close re­la­tion­ship be­tween the fes­ti­val and poet. With his rhetoric and wild imag­i­na­tion, Qu Yuan had a noble spirit of in­tegrity and right­eous­ness, as well as his un­yield­ing pa­tri­o­tism. Af­ter more than 2,000 years, Qu Yuan is still vivid and spir­i­tual for Chi­nese to­day.

Qu Yuan wrote a lot of ex­cel­lent verse, which ex­pressed grief over the de­feated coun­try and his home­town in ru­ins, his po­lit­i­cal ideals to­wards a promis­ing ruler and a strong state, as well as his deep con­cern over com­mon peo­ple liv­ing in ex­treme mis­ery, as can be seen in the fol­low­ing lines: “Dew from mag­no­lia leaves I drank at dawn, at eve for food were aster petals borne. High Heaven is not con­stant in its dis­pen­sa­tions: see how the coun­try is moved to un­rest and er­ror! The peo­ple are scat­tered and men cut off from their fel­lows; in mid-spring the move east be­gan. Long did I sigh and wipe away my tears, to see my peo­ple bowed by grief and fears. Ev­ery­one is filthy whereas I am pure; ev­ery­one is drunk whereas I am sober. When the wa­ter of the Cang Lang is muddy, it does wash my feet.” This lit­er­ary prow­ess and noble spirit have made Qu Yuan an im­mor­tal fig­ure in Chi­nese his­tory.

As one com­mon say­ing goes, one misses his fam­ily more than ever on fes­tive occasions. Fes­ti­vals, apart from their re­spec­tive con­no­ta­tions, serve more of­ten as occasions for fam­ily get-to­geth­ers to en­joy the com­pany of fam­ily. In the Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val, peo­ple will have zongzi, with threads which wind gluti­nous rice tightly in leaves like a cord of af­fec­tion among its fam­ily mem­bers.

To­day, young peo­ple mas­ter­ing this skill are few; how­ever, the “lit­tle girls” in the nurs­ery rhyme then, hav­ing kept the prac­tice of mak­ing zongzi by them­selves.

For many of those born in the 1970s and 80s, they are still fa­mil­iar with mak­ing zongzi at home. It of­ten hap­pens on week­ends, when most fam­ily mem­bers are off work. The white gluti­nous rice was soaked in a wooden basin. On the ta­ble there was a bucket of bean-paste fill­ing made of boiled skin­less red beans, a big bowl of honey dates, as well as stacks of clean reed leaves. The fe­male mem­bers of the fam­ily, like grandma, mother, and aunts, would gather around the ta­ble and make zongzi with in­gre­di­ents on the ta­ble. Grand­moth­ers were most skilled. While fill­ing gluti­nous rice into reed leaves, she kept re­mind­ing other women of fill­ing less rice and more dates into the leaves. Soon, the whole yard was filled with a sweet fra­grance.

In Zumu De Ji­jie (Grandma's Sea­son), writer Su Tong re­called a scene of his grand­mother wrap­ping zongzi be­fore her death: “Grandma sat in the back­yard, wrap­ping zongzi non­stop. Fin­ished ones mounted up, and al­most formed a small hill. Dur­ing a long au­tumn, I went in and out of the house, with unused reed leaves left by grandma above my head. The mo­ment re­minded me of the fra­grance of reeds by Baiyang Lake, also the fra­grance of spring, or grandma's sea­son. How I wish in ev­ery Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val, grandma could reach out to me, and, with warm fin­gers, put a zongzi wrapped tightly with red thread around my neck. With it, I walked out of my house, passed by vil­lage lanes, and ran hap­pily and swiftly along Baiyang Lake.”

To­day, zongzi are usu­ally pro­duced me­chan­i­cally and in large quan­ti­ties. In spite of the ben­e­fits of the in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, it has de­prived peo­ple of their fa­mil­iar feel­ings to­ward the food. Shar­ing home­made zongzi in neigh­bour­hood has be­come in­creas­ingly rare.

In the novel Sishi­tong­tang (Four Gen­er­a­tions un­der One Roof), au­thor Lao She (1899–1966) de­scribed sev­eral kinds of zongzi in Bei­jing in the pe­riod of the Repub­lic of China (1912–1949). “The first kind is sold in stores sell­ing var­i­ous old style Peip­ing Manchu and Han pas­tries. It is made of top-grade gluti­nous rice with­out any fill­ing, in a small size and del­i­cate qual­ity. A lit­tle white sugar is all that's needed to go with it. The taste may not be im­pres­sive, but when served in a colour­ful dish, it looks white and del­i­cate. The sec­ond kind is ba­si­cally the same, but is cooled in ice and sold by ven­dors ped­dlinga kind of steamed sponge cake on the street. The third is sold by ped­dlers from street to street. The dif­fer­ence is that the size of the food is big­ger, with red dates used as a fill­ing. This is the most com­mon type of zongzi.”

A de­tail in this de­scrip­tion ver­i­fies the habit of Bei­jingers of hav­ing white sugar with zongzi. When do­ing this, some peo­ple like to bite off the cor­ners first. In this way, they can en­joy the sweet dates or sweeter parts of zongzi first. Af­ter they bite the cor­ners off, they will hold the gluti­nous rice ball and dip it in white sugar in eas­ily.

As China is a vast county, dif­fer­ent ar­eas have con­trib­uted dif­fer­ent flavours to zongzi. Its di­ver­si­ties re­flect lo­cal fea­tures, cus­toms, as well as par­tic­u­lar liv­ing and so­cial states of ar­eas in dif­fer­ent times.

This can be ev­i­denced by a de­tail in Four Gen­er­a­tions un­der One Roof. One year, the gen­tle housewife Yun­mei could no longer hear a ped­dler's voice of “big zongzi with small dates” on the street dur­ing the Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val, when she re­alised that war was com­ing, and peo­ple could no longer live like they did be­fore.

Changes in food and eat­ing habits em­body peo­ple's con­cern and awe for life, and wit­ness changes in the times as well as peo­ple's liv­ing stan­dards. Bei­jingers be­lieve that all things have souls, and food is no ex­cep­tion.

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