Information: Duanwu Festival (端午节) and Zongzi (粽子)

Wishing everyone a healthy Duanwu Festival!

Today is the Duanwu Festival (端午节, Mandarin: duan wu jie, “dwuhn woo dzyeh”, Cantonese: duen ng jit. “dwehn-ng dzeet”, literally “beginning 7th earthly branch holiday”) which is one of the most famous Chinese festivals. It takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In China, there are many festivals. Every festival is very interesting and has its own customs. The most popular custom of each festival is… eating! Each holiday is associated with a food. Duanwu Festival is associated with zongzi (粽子 zong zi, “dzohng dzz”, zong has no meaning other than the food, and zi is a suffix). Zongzi are made from glutinous rice (which is gluten-free) wrapped in leaves and cooked. They can be compared to tamales and are sometimes called Chinese tamales. Some people translate them as “rice dumpling”, which I do not prefer. The Chinese have dozens of foods that can be translated as “rice dumplings”, so if one says “rice dumplings” I do not know which rice dumpling they are talking about!

There are many legends about the origin of Duanwu Festival. I will list the many different legends below.

First, the most popular is about the poet and minister Qu Yuan (屈原 pronounced “tshee ywehn” in Mandarin) who lived during the Warring States period of Chinese history about 2300 years ago. He was the minister of the State of Chu (楚国 chu guo, pronounced “choo gwuh”). But when the king decided to ally with the neighboring State of Qin, (秦国 qin guo, pronounced ‘tseen gwuh”) he was against it because he knew it wasn’t a good idea. As a result, the king banished him for treason and he became a poet. He wrote many famous poems. 28 years later, Qin captured the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan jumped into the Miluo River (汨罗江 mi luo jiang, “mee lwuh dzyahng”) in present-day Jiangxi province (江西 “dzyahng see”). (If you’re wondering, the river is formed from the joining of the Mi River and Luo River. They are tributaries of the Yangtse River.) The legend is that the people went out in boats to find his body, and they weren’t successful, so they threw rice into the river to feed the fish so that they wouldn’t eat his body. The boat search is supposedly the origin of the Dragon Boat racing. On Duanwu Festival, around China, people race or watch a race of a traditional boat called the Dragon Boat (龙舟 long zhou, “lohng djoh”), which is a long boat powered by paddling. They are decorated with a dragon head at one end and a dragon tail at the other.

The second variation of the story is about the minister Wu Zixu (伍子胥 “woo dzz see”) who lived 2500 years ago and was a minister of the State of Wu (吴国 wu guo, “woo gwuh”). He warned the king about the State of Yue (yue guo 越国 “yweh gwuh”), but the king did not listen. The king forced him to commit suicide. 10 years later, Yue actually conquered Wu’s capital. Wu Zixu’s death is commemorated in parts of Jiangxi province today where the State of Wu once stood.

The third story is different (not really a variation). It is about a girl named Cao E (曹娥 “tsall uh”). Her father fell into the river during the Duanwu Festival. She swam in the river to try to find his body but she drowned too. The river was renamed the Cao E River and is one of the major rivers in Zhejiang province. Her death is commemorated in parts of Zhejiang Province today.

Most people outside the areas of Jiangxi and Zhejiang where the 2nd and 3rd stories are known, only know about the 1st one. I didn’t know about the other stories until I checked Wikipedia!

Everyone in China knows the 1st story though. But many ABCs (American-Born-Chinese) don’t. Most just know that we eat zongzi, hehe. It’s good to know the origin of the holiday though! 🙂

Due to these stories, it is also best to wish people a healthy Duan Wu Festival over a happy one, as the day commemorates the unfortunate deaths of these 3 people, especially Qu Yuan (since his story is the most well-known).

There are many theories about the origin of Duanwu Festival and how it relates to the 3 legends. According to Wikipedia, most research shows that both the Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu stories were combined with an already preexisting holiday. Some people think the preexisting holiday had to do with dragon worship because of the dragon boats. They believe that the zongzi were an offering to the dragons. Others believe that it originated as a festival for the harvest of winter wheat (planted in winter and harvested in summer).

Duanwu Festival means “The Beginning of the Seventh Earthly Branch Festival”. In Ancient China, the days were organized into cycles of 12 and each day had the name of an earthly branch. The seventh is called “wu”. It originally took place on the 7th earthly branch in the 5th month. It now takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month. It is also sometimes called Duanyang Festival (端阳节) which means “The Beginning of Yang Festival”. Yang as in the Yin and Yang of Chinese philosophy. Another name is Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节 or 龙船节) named because of the dragon boat racing. This is the most popular to translate into other languages because it requires no confusing explanations of the 7th earthly branch. As a result, it is the official English name. In Singapore, the Malay is Pesta Parahu Naga which has the name meaning. The Tamil name is நாகக் கப்பல் பந்தயம் (nākak kappal pantayam) which also has the same meaning.

In Hokkien (a dialect of Southern Min spoken in Fujian Province, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia) the festival is also called the Double Fifth Festival (go goeh cheh), Fifth Month Festival, and Fifth Day Festival since it takes place on 5-5. It is also called the Pork Zong Festival (肉粽节 bah chang cheh), Pork Zong or Bah Chang being the Hokkien name for Zongzi.

During the Duanwu Festival, the most common activities are eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and watching or doing dragon boat races. Realgar wine (雄黄酒 xiong huang jiu, “syohng hwahng dzyoh”, literally masculine yellow wine) is made from dissolving realgar, a toxic arsenic compound, in Chinese yellow rice wine. Since it’s poisonous, less people drink this now. In fact, I have never even seen it before, since it might be illegal in the USA. The activities are believed to ward off evil and disease.

The Duanwu Festival spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan due to Chinese influence in the past. In Vietnam, it is called Tết Đoan Ngọ and the customs are similar and they eat bánh tro, their version of zongzi. In Korea, it’s called Dano (단오) (dan-o, not da-no) and it’s a major holiday too, although the customs are different and I don’t believe they eat zongzi. Lastly, in Japan, it was originally called Tango no Sekku (端午の節句) and the customs changed dramatically! It became a festival celebrating boys, like how their Hinamatsuri celebrated girls. When Japan modernized, the holiday was moved to May 5 in the Gregorian calendar and renamed Kodomo ni Hi (こどもの日) which means Children’s Day. It now celebrates both boys and girls. There are still zongzi in Japan, probably because of the Chinese immigrants. In Okinawa, Duanwu Festival is celebrated in a more Chinese way, as they also have dragon boat racing called hārī.

According to Wikipedia, when the Communists took over China, Duanwu Festival ceased to be celebrated since it was thought of an old tradition and old = bad for the communists. But in 2005, the government started recognizing Duanwu Festival. It has been a public holiday since 2008. However, contrary to this statement, my mom told me that everyone always celebrated Duanwu Festival when she was a child, even around the time of the Cultural Revolution. At least there were always zongzi and dragon boat races. And everyone in China knows the story of Qu Yuan’s death and the Duan Wu Festival. So I’m not sure if Wikipedia’s statement is really true.

More about Zongzi now! In Mandarin, it is zong zi (“dzohng dzz”). In Cantonese, it is zung zi (“dzoong dzee”). It can also just be called zung. In Hokkien, it is bah chang (“bahk chahng”) which means meat zong. Since many Hokkien speakers migrated to Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asian names are very similar to it. Zongzi has so many variations throughout China and Southeast Asia.

The rice used to make zongzi is glutinous rice, also called sticky rice. It’s called nuo mi in Mandarin and lo mai in Cantonese. The English names are extremely confusing since many people believe it has gluten (which it does not) or that it is the same as Japanese rice, which Americans call sticky rice. What makes it more confusing is that there are 2 very different kinds, long grain and short grain. Regular rice also has 2 kinds and these could be confused for each other! Now, to tell the difference. When raw, glutinous rice is white and opaque, no light passing through. When soaked, it is still opaque. When cooked, it is translucent (some light passes through). Regular rice is translucent when raw. When soaked, it turns opaque, and when cooked, it is opaque.

Long grain glutinous rice is cooked by soaking and steaming. Short grain glutinous rice is cooked like regular rice. Long grain glutinous rice is usually imported from Thailand. Short grain glutinous rice is imported from Korea, Japan, or grown by Japanese farmers in California. Short grain glutinous rice is often called mochi rice or sweet rice by Japanese and Koreans. Long grain glutinous rice is called glutinous rice or sticky rice by Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Chinese people use both long and short grain. I used long grain today even though it is boiled but it still works since zongzi texture is different from regular cooked glutinous rice. The rice sticks together to form a sticky and chewy cake. You can also use short grain sticky rice for this recipe. Different types of rice will create different textures.

Sweet fillings like red bean paste are more popular for zongzi in Northern China. Savory fillings are more popular in Southern China. China’s different regions also shape zongzi differently. Sometimes they are tetrahedron-shaped (4 sides, all triangles) and other times, cone-shaped. It is said the tetrahedrons are found in the North and cones in the South. However, some Southern recipes I have seen show the tetrahedron zongzi, so it’s not completely that way. Meanwhile, I have never seen cone-shaped Northern zongzi though. Some zongzi are even shaped like rectangular pouches, somewhat like tamales.

Zongzi are made using many different types of leaves. Usually reed or bamboo leaves. My package in Chinese says something like “top quality zongzi leaves”. This does not show the type of leaves though. In English, it is labeled “BAMBOO LEAVES”, but “INGREDIENTS: REED”. XD Which leaf is it? Anyways, leaves add a unique fragrance and taste to the glutinous rice essential to Zongzi. Different leaves have different flavors, but I can’t tell what is reed and what is bamboo since I’ve never seen clear labeling on a zongzi leaf package. Zongzi are tied with either string or long strips of reed leaves. String is easier to use so I recommend it. Some packages of zongzi leaves come with thin strips of the leaves for tying while others don’t. I used string since my didn’t come with the strips.

The leaves are not eaten (may seem obvious). There’s a Chinese joke that a foreigner unacquainted with zongzi tried it and said to a Chinese person, “Zongzi are so tasty! But the outer leaf gets stuck in your teeth! Thankfully, they provide floss for you.” (If you don’t get it, the floss is the string used to tie the zongzi!)

Zongzi are sometimes boiled and sometimes steamed. The steamed ones have the glutinous rice precooked by stir-frying before filling. Also, the cooking time varies a lot. It takes a really long time though. I use a pressure cooker, making the process so much easier and faster but many people are afraid of pressure cookers. You need a very large pot to make the zongzi, so a tiny pressure cooker won’t work either. I use a very old one brought to the US from China by my grandma. Electric pressure cookers are now very easy to use, not nearly as loud, and less dangerous. If you want one, there are many on Amazon. Some of them also double as slow cookers, rice cookers, etc. and also have very good reviews. However, I do not have one right now so I cannot review it.

There are many variations of fillings of zongzi. Here are some below. Some zongzi are not even filled! These are usually served with sugar sprinkled on top.

Cantonese zongzi are filled with glutinous rice, peanuts, mung beans, marinated pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, salted duck egg yolks, Chinese sausages, dried shrimp, and sometimes other ingredients. The ingredients can vary though. Taiwanese zongzi  and other zongzi from the South are similar to Cantonese zongzi in terms of fillings. Some Taiwanese zongzi have the savory ingredients (sausage, pork, dried mushrooms and shrimp) stir-fried together though, which is a bit different from Cantonese zongzi. Both use soy sauce and other flavorings as seasoning. Taiwanese version uses fried shallots in the filling often though.

The Nyonya people (descendants of Chinese people originally from Fujian living in Malaysia) have a unique type of zongzi. They use a natural beautiful blue food coloring from the blue butterfly pea flower to dye the rice partially blue. The filling is sweet-savory as it includes finely chopped candied winter melon! And lastly a pandan leaf is added inside the zongzi to give a unique fragrance. They are called “Nyonya chang” in Malaysia from the Hokkien pronounciation of “zong”.

Some zongzi have glutinous rice mixed with potassium carbonate solution (highly basic) which makes the rice have a golden color. They are called 碱水粽 (jian shui zong, “dzyehn shway dzohng”, meaning “alkali water zong”). These can have no filling at all (sprinkled with sugar before eating). They can also be filled with red bean paste. I did not make these today.

Most Chinese people buy zongzi at the store. They cost a lot at the store. However, some Chinese make zongzi at home. Making zongzi at home is more affordable but time-consuming and quite challenging and confusing to wrap the first time, until you get the hang of it. It is definitely not so easy as some online recipes made by skilled zongzi wrappers show, hehe. They also take several hours to boil, but I used a pressure cooker, making them faster. i also used a pressure cooker to make red bean paste, which is very easy.

For the zongzi I made today, I made them filled with red bean paste and I did not use potassium carbonate solution. Sweet zongzi are easier to make as they don’t need so much prep work and have only 2 fillings (glutinous rice and red bean paste), unlike savory ones with 10 fillings! They were very tasty and quite fun to make. I made almost 30, in 2 batches in the pressure cooker!

Look forward to the recipe, which I will upload soon! 😀

I hope everyone has a healthy Duanwu Festival!


3 thoughts on “Information: Duanwu Festival (端午节) and Zongzi (粽子)

  1. Very good wrote up. yes. long but I read it twice. look forward to your zongzi write up since this is where I have my curiosity at. your Moms failure is like my tamale failure :). Wishing your Father a healthy Day today!! THANKS.

    1. Thank you! 🙂
      I hope I can get the recipe done today. Maybe one day I can try to make tamales since they seem interesting 🙂
      Happy Father’s Day to every father! 😀

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