The delicious rice dumplings known as zhong zi that are eaten during the Duanwu Festival represents more than just a delicacy for the many Chinese observing this event.
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Duanwu Festival, which is sometimes known as Dragon Boat Festival here in Malaysia, is a widely celebrated event that is usually held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Though this festival holds more significance in China, it is still observed by the Chinese population here in Malaysia, albeit in a more subtle manner. During this time, many Chinese households will start to prepare zhong zi, a dumpling made of glutinous rice with various kinds of stuffing, wrapped in either bamboo or lotus leaves. There is an art to folding the leaves so that the rice and contents do not spill when being boiled, and not everyone is able to fold the rice dumpling without fumbling once or twice. Very often, the skill of wrapping rice dumplings neatly together is handed down from generation to generation along with the family's secret recipe.
Many of the younger generation are not aware of the story that led to the making of these rice dumplings. To them, it is just another one of the many delicacies that can be found at markets or stalls. The dumplings, much like the mooncake, is a product borne out of a story that has become an integral part of Chinese history. During the Warring States Period, there lived a man called Qu Yuan. Historians believe that he was a great poet. He was a royal advisor to the emperor and the epitome of patriotism. He was the emperor's favored advisor as his knowledge about the kingdom far surpassed the other advisors. A wise man who only had the kingdom's best interest in his heart, he was well-loved by the people, which only sparked more hatred and jealousy amongst the other officials in the court. Together, they managed to convince the emperor that Qu Yuan was vying for greater political power within the government. When the emperor was invited for a peace negotiation with a neighbouring state, Qu Yuan's advice to not go and warning that it was a trap went unheeded. The emperor was captured and was subsequently put to death.
When the emperor's son ascended the throne, Qu Yuan had hoped for another chance to redeem the kingdom by making it stronger. Unfortunately, the new emperor was a weak ruler who unconsciously allowed corruption and greed to gain a stronghold over his court officials. Qu Yuan's constant campaigns against corruption and his suggestions of political reformation to protect the country once again made him the target of hate and jealousy amongst the other officials. Once again, they managed to pressure the new emperor to remove Qu Yuan from the service, who later banished him to remote region in Hunan province. From there, Qu Yuan watched with a heavy heart the gradual fall of his beloved motherland. It was said that his greatest works were done during this period of despair as he channeled his feelings of grieve and sadness into his masterpieces. Unable to bear it anymore, Qu Yuan took his life by drowning himself in a river. The nearby fishermen hurried over to rescue him but it was too late. One version of the legend holds that one of the fisherman dreamt that his body was being eaten by fishes, so the people decided to throw rice dumplings into the river, hoping that the fishes will eat the dumplings instead of their beloved hero. Yet another version says that the people carved a dragon-shaped head on their boat's bow and beat gongs to please the river dragon so that it may return Qu Yuan. This was the start of the 'Dragon Boat Festival' and the dragon boat races.
Over the years, the rice dumplings have evolved from simple rice dumplings wrapped in leaves to rice dumplings with assorted filling. The common rice dumpling contains bits of pork, mushroom, water chestnuts, mung beans and/or peanuts. There are some which also have salted duck egg yolks, which are more expensive. There are also savoury glutinous rice dumplings, meant to be eaten with a sticky sweet paste made from coconut, eggs and sugar. In the early days, these rice dumplings could only be found at a time nearing the Duanwu Festival. As popularity demand increased, many industrious traders began making these dumplings for sale all year round. These days, these delicious, mouth-watering dumplings can be found any time of the year, to be enjoyed by many as and when they want.