Usually Chinese festivals are explained by the traumatic death of some great paragon of virtue – Andrew Chittick, a professor of East Asian Humanities
Zongzi is a traditional Chinese rice dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves. They are cooked by steaming or boiling and are traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival), which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar
Like many traditional Chinese foods, zongzi honors a God or (in this case) a divinized historical figure Qu Yuan.
Qu Yuan Temple
Qu Yuan was a prolific poet and a favorite adviser to the king of the state of Chu in ancient China. He was said to be a wise and articulate man and much loved by the common people.
However other corrupt courtiers were envious and proceeded to slander him, which influenced the king to exile Qu Yuan to the region north of the Han River.
In his exile, he spent much of this time collecting legends and rearranging folk odes while traveling the countryside. He also wrote some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature and expressed deep concerns about his state.
According to legend, his anxiety brought him to an increasingly troubled state of health. During his depression, he would often take walks near a certain well to look upon his thin and gaunt reflection in the water. This well became known as the “Face Reflection Well.”
Hearing that his country had been defeated by enemies, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River of todays Hunan Province, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C.
In 278 BC, the city of Ying (his country’s capital) was captured by the state of Qin and the king imprisoned. On hearing the tragic news, Qu Yuan is said to have written the lengthy poem of lamentation called “Lament for Ying” and committed suicide by wading into the Miluo River while holding a rock. The reason why he took his life remained controversial and was argued by Chinese scholars for centuries. Typical explanations including martyrdom for his deeply beloved but falling motherland or feeling extreme despair to the situation of the politics in Chu which shattered his lifelong political dream. But according to Yu Fu, widely considered to be written by Qu himself his suicide was an ultimate way to protect his innocence and life principles.
When they heard of Qu Yuan’s death, the local people were very sad, and rowed out on the river to search for his body, but were unable to find him. To preserve his body, the locals paddled their boats up and down the river, hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare evil spirits away. They threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish, so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body and as a food offering to Qu Yuan’s spirit
For years after Qu Yuan’s death, his supporters threw rice in the water to feed his spirit, but the food was always intercepted by a water dragon. After years of this frustration, Qu Yuan’s spirit told the people to wrap the rice in leaves so the dragon couldn’t eat it.
Since then, people in the Miluo River area (about 50 km north of Changsha in central China’s Hunan Province) have followed similar practices to commemorate Qu Yuan on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Gradually, rowing boats developed into dragon boat racing and the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Jie) was established. The lumps of rice became zongzi which became traditional to consume during this time.
“…Qu Yuan became the face of Duanwu Jie, because he was a prolific polemical poet whose work was studied and loved by generations of Chinese scholars who followed him…. Having demonstrated both love for his country and contempt for the ungracious ruling class, he is known as the People’s Poet. For the Chinese, Qu Yuan has transcended the simple story of his self-sacrifice, coming to represent the very embodiment of patriotism.”