Zongzi, a Multi-flavoured Delicacy
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.