As China gears up for Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional holiday that this year falls on June 18, many families are buying ingredients to make zongzi, the steamed balls of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves or reeds. You can dip plain zongzi into soft white sugar before eating, enjoy the taste of dates, bean paste, or nuts in sweet zongzi, or gobble down the fresh pork, ham, or salted egg yolks found in the savory varieties.
Dragon Boat Festival likely originated as a way to mark the changing of the seasons. In traditional China, the searing summer heat brought an accompanying risk of disease. A festival at this time of year symbolized that people would not be cowed by the brutal conditions, and zongzi eventually came to symbolize health, security, and a rejection of potential disaster.
Zongzi are still popular treats today. The myth underlying Dragon Boat Festival states that at the end of the Warring States period, a great poet by the name of Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River in central China after being exiled. In order to keep the fish from devouring his body, locals purportedly paddled dragon-shaped boats into the river and fed the fish zongzi.
In my first memories of Dragon Boat Festival, I am standing in my grandmother’s simple kitchen in Shaoxing, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Green leaves soak in the sink, the freshly steamed glutinous rice has an oily sheen, and a bowl of salted egg yolks seems to glow red. Grandma is sitting on a small stool, methodically laying out ingredients, wrapping them, and tying them up with different-colored bits of string, with each color denoting a different filling.
An elder woman shows the zongzi she made in Fuzhou, Fujiang province, June 14, 2002. Yang Enuo/VCG
Today, few are willing to take the time to make homemade zongzi. Nowadays, consumers can buy the treats with all sorts of exotic flavorings: Starbucks fills some with a cheesecake-like mousse every year; other outlets market grilled or fried zongzi, or stuff them with nontraditional fillings like crawfish, eel, Peking duck, and durian.
New customs have emerged around zongzi, too. In Chinese, the character zong sounds like a character in the phrase “high marks.” Because the festival falls just as students prepare to take the gaokao, China’s grueling college entrance exam, many snack on zongzi for good luck before the test.
Historically, people often gave zongzi as gifts, usually to convey courtesy, favor, and a sense of belonging. In imperial China, it was traditional for the emperor and the royal court to provide a feast of zongzi to lower-level palace officials on Dragon Boat Festival. Today, many companies give their employees zongzi as a holiday bonus. A box of the sticky treats rarely sells for more than 100 yuan ($15), but if your boss doesn’t give out zongzi, employees will be up in arms.
Among close friends, it is enough to wrap up a few handmade zongzi, put them in a bag, and bring them over as a gift whose value lies in the intent, time, and skill of the giver, not the amount of money spent. Yan Yunxiang, an anthropologist who studies gift-giving practices, terms such gifts “expressive” for the way they show, maintain, and strengthen already-existing relationships. Such traditions tend to be nonutilitarian and mutual, with both sides giving and receiving similar types of gifts. Gifts to elders, however, are meant to express respect and filial piety, and do not come with expectations of reciprocity — a reflection of the status orders between young and old.
Screenshots from the Chinese version of mobile game ‘Traveling Frog’ show the tradition of Dragon Boat Festival, including eating zongzi and hanging mugwort on the door, June 15, 2018.
But when we give gifts to less-familiar acquaintances, we must consider their monetary value. This is especially true when giving gifts to superiors such as teachers and bosses. Because many Chinese worry that shabby-looking gifts will not pass muster, they often turn to bright, beautiful packaging to give their offering a more formal air. Yan refers to this as “instrumental” gift-giving, noting that it often occurs when presents are bestowed to people higher up the social ladder in order to establish or deepen favorable ties, flatter someone, or ask for a favor. Indeed, sometimes Chinese people use minor holidays like Dragon Boat Festival as a pretense to mix traditional snacks with more valuable presents in order to accord the recipient more respect or ask a grand favor from them at some point in the future.
In recent years, Chinese companies have made great efforts to build interest in traditional foodstuffs among young consumers. The rise of the internet and social media have helped these firms find markets for qingtuan, the bright-green sweet rice balls eaten on Tomb-Sweeping Day, as well as yuebing, the “moon cakes” eaten during Mid-Autumn Festival. Many food companies experiment with new food concepts, eye-catching packaging, and social media campaigns. Sellers also combine traditional holiday foods with various subcultures in the hope that they will go viral, even if that means branding zongzi with Mickey Mouse- or Star Wars-inspired designs.
As a holiday food, zongzi have never only been about satisfying our base need for sustenance. To the Chinese, they carry great symbolic value and have strong social utility, which is why the tradition has survived for millennia. Whether you love zongzi or loathe them, most Chinese agree that if you don’t have at least a bite of one during Dragon Boat Festival, you haven’t properly celebrated the holiday.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Children learn to make ‘zongzi’ at a kindergarten in Pingliang, Gansu province, June 15, 2018. Yang Xin/VCG)