Growing up, I’d always looked forward to Dragon Boat Festival, or dyun1 ng5 zit3 (端午節), or Tuen Ng festival every year – and I’m not just talking about the public holiday that comes with it here in Hong Kong.
In the lunar calendar, the festival takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month, which is usually around late May or early to mid-June in the Gregorian calendar. On this day, dragon boat racers, who have been training for weeks, take to the waters of Hong Kong with gusto. Even though I’ve never joined in on the fun — I’m not a team sports person — it’s also a time for family. Part of the spirit of the festival is to celebrate loyalty and filial piety, a Confucian ideal that essentially means respect for your elders.
But the best part of the festival for me is, without a doubt, the chance to dig into zung2 zi2 (粽子) – sticky rice dumplings. Best known simply as zung2, these seasonal treats consist of rice stuffed with a variety of fillings, and are tightly wrapped in bamboo leaves, usually in a triangular shape. It’s a traditional Chinese dish that springs up around this time of year, sold at street stalls, in supermarkets, or made right at home.
The savoury variety is popular, and fillings include the likes of red or green beans, preserved sausages, salted egg yolk, peanuts, corn and pork. My favourite, however, are sweet zung2 zi2 – and I can devour several in one sitting (even though you’re not supposed to have too much in one go, because all that sticky rice takes a long time to digest).
Much smaller than their salty cousins, sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste are typically used as fillings. They’re cooked in lye water, giving them a distinctly alkaline flavour that some consider to be an acquired taste. Savoury and sweet zung2 zi2 are both typically steamed before serving. I usually have my sweet ones with a spoonful of sugar or golden syrup. While standard zung2 zi2 continue to prevail, sometimes you’ll come across deluxe versions with upmarket ingredients like abalone and Jinhua dry-cured ham.
Regional varieties can also be found throughout China and the rest of Asia. Zung2 zi2 are similar throughout the south, in Hong Kong and Guangdong. The Hokkien and Teochew peoples have their own slightly different takes. There are a few versions of Hakka-style zung2 zi2 in particular. One of them uses rice peanut milk instead of standard sticky rice, giving the outer layer a smooth appearance and texture. Unlike what’s found in the the south, northern Chinese varieties tend to be sweet, using the likes of red dates in their fillings.
Further afield, in Singapore and Malaysia, a version of zung2 zi2 created by Peranakans — the offspring of early Chinese settlers in the region — is both sweet and savoury, thanks to the addition of candied winter melon. Another unique feature of these zung2 zi2 is that the rice filling appears partially blue in colour, which comes from the use of the Asian pigeonwings flower. Peranakan-style zung2 zi2 also features rempah, a spice paste commonly used in cooking throughout the Malay archipelago, giving it an intense, flavoursome kick.
Vietnam’s own zung2 zi2 is called bánh chưng. They are consumed year-round, but especially so during Tết, or Vietnamese New Year. It doesn’t quite have the same background story as the Chinese zung2 zi2 ; bánh chưng honours a prince from an ancient Vietnamese dynasty. Nor do they have the exact same appearance: bánh chưng is usually square-shaped. Aside from glutinous rice, the starring ingredients are mung bean, pork, salt and pepper, and fish sauce, an integral part of Vietnamese cooking.
Much like other foods that go hand in hand with festivals in Chinese culture, zung2 zi2 has a cool urban legend or two behind it, which we learned about in school. The most popular urban legend revolves around Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet and minister who lived circa 340 to 278 BC during the Warring States period in China. Frequently described as a patriot, Qu Yuan wrote prolifically and is credited with having created Co2 Ci4 (楚辭), also known as Cho Chi, or the “Verses of Chu,” a legendary anthology of Chinese poetry.
The story goes that during a period of warfare and turmoil between multiple states in China, the loyal, idealistic Qu Yuan advocated for King Huai (who reigned 328 to 299 BC) of their state, Chu, to join forces with the state of Qi in order to fight the state of Qin. King Huai, who rejected this idea, was eventually captured by the Qin state and died in their territory.
After King Huai’s death, Qu Yuan asked the newly crowned King Qingxiang of Chu (who reigned from 298 to 263 BC) to steer clear of ministers who did not have the best intentions for the court. This was said to have incurred the wrath of the king, who sent Qu Yuan on exile. Some also believe that his exile happened as a result of ministers who convinced the king to let him go.
Chu was later attacked by Qin. Feeling hopeless about his country, Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River, which is located in modern-day Hunan province.
A much-loved figure within the community, Qu Yuan’s death prompted fishermen to attempt to find his body. When this failed, they resorted to making parcels of rice to throw into the river — ostensibly to feed the fish, so they wouldn’t go after Qu Yuan’s body. I remember racking my brain, as a child, how the creatures of the water could get into these tightly wrapped parcels.
A lesser-known story attributes the origins of dragon boat festival to Wu Zixu, who was a politician in the Spring and Autumn period (722 to 481 BC). Following a period of warfare, Wu Zixu asked the King Fuchai of the Wu state (reigned 495 to 473 BC) to eradicate their enemy, the Yue state, instead of making peace with them. King Fuchai, who disagreed with Wu Zixu, eventually forced him to commit suicide with a knife — then threw his dead body into the Qiantang River, now in the eastern province of Zhejiang. According to some schools of thought, Wu Zixu became worshipped as a god of the Qiantang River. And every year, on the anniversary of his death, people would throw offerings into the river to appease him.
The dates of both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu’s deaths were both said to have fallen on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, and the acts that followed gave rise to the modern traditions of zung2 zi2 — although of course, instead of throwing zung2 zi2 in the water, we eat them.
As for dragon boating, a paddling sport that lent its name to the festival’s English moniker? The tradition began some 2,000 years ago in the coastal provinces of China. Whether you’re hitting the water for dragon boat racing or observing on the sidelines, and whichever urban legend you believe in, rest assured that zung2 zi2 will be the highlight of your dragon boat festival. And on your day off, don’t forget to put aside time for family – I know that I’ll be digging into zung2 zi2 with mine.