Food for Thought: Dumplings and dragon boats

Dive into the cultural and personal significance of food

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Celebrating Duanwu Jie and its origins with zongzi. Illustration: Alyssa Marie Umbal / The Peak

By: Nancy La, Staff Writer

In June, my family celebrates a special festival called Duanwu Jie in Mandarin. Known in English for its common name, the Dragon Boat Festival, Duanwu Jie is a day to celebrate an ancient story with dragon boating and the consumption of a special glutinous rice dumpling called zongzi

Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival at False Creek is home to one of the biggest paddling competitions in North America, and I was one of the youth racers during my high school days. Though I’ve paddled on a dragon boat team for three years, I’m embarrassed to say I had never delved into the festival’s history. I know the origin story of the festival involves a water spirit and rice being thrown into a river, but for more information, I consulted the person I think knows the topic best: my father. 

My dad told me the festival came from the Warring States period in China. A young politician named Qu Yuan was exiled by the emperor of Chu after proposing a plan the emperor didn’t like. Several years later, the empire of Chu lost a war to its neighbour, the Qin, and had to surrender. Qu Yuan, hearing the devastating news, drowned himself in a river. 

To appease Qu Yuan’s spirit, the people threw rice into the water to feed him. Unfortunately, there was a dragon in the water who would intercept before Qu Yuan could get to it. After several centuries of this, Qu Yuan got annoyed and came back to the people — in his spiritual form — and taught them how to wrap rice in leaves or bamboo stalks. This was so the dragon couldn’t steal the food. Zongzi then became a common food to eat during the festival. 

There are many ways to prepare zongzi — one can boil them until they’re cooked, or take a modern approach and use a pressure cooker. They also vary by region: Shanghai has its own take on zongzi using different soy sauces, or there’s lye water zongzi with its delicious chewiness. Zongzi can house various combinations of filling, such as pork belly, mung beans, and cured egg yolk. There are also sweet zongzi stuffed with red bean paste or Chinese dates. Its ubiquitous greenish, glutinous rice and wrapping made of leaves are iconic in Southeast and East Asian cuisine. 

Zongzi can be consumed year-round, but there is a very special feeling to consuming them as you watch racers speed to the finish line to the sounds of rhythmic drumming on False Creek’s water. 

There are several explanations for dragon boat racing during the festival. One is that dragon boating was a form of military training — trust me, paddling is more exhausting than it looks. Another is that it was a way for the people to ask the dragon god to watch over their rice crops. Either way, dragon boat paddling and zongzi became intertwined with Qu Yuan and his story, and it is an integral part of the Duanwu Jie East and Southeast Asian communities celebrate today.