Why do we celebrate Dragon Boat Festival with rice dumplings?

Today (Jun 18), Chinese people around the world celebrate Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Festival), a 2,000 year-old folk festival to commemorate their beloved patriot, Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan (343–278 BC) was a poet and once-trusted advisor to the emperor who drowned himself in a river – while his reasons are greatly debated, theories range from martyrdom for his deeply beloved but falling motherland, to feeling extreme despair regarding the political situation.

Drums and boats

Because he was well-loved by the common folk, locals did a lot of things to prevent his body from being ravaged by man-eating fish. Some fishermen beat drums and splashed water with their paddles to keep the fish away. According to legend, these boats were shaped as dragons to appease the river dragons.

This is why today, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated with dragon boats – and the regatta became a sport around the world, from China to Hong Kong and Singapore. You can catch the regatta at Bedok Reservoir, Kallang River, and at DBS Marina Regatta.

Rice dumplings

To distract the fish from eating his body, some villagers threw cooked rice into the water. In other versions of the story, Qu Yuan’s spirit appeared before his friends and asked them to wrap their rice into three-cornered packages to ward off the dragon.

Whichever version, another important component of this festival today is the eating of these triangular dumplings, called zhongzi, or zhang. There are many varieties of rice dumplings, all based on the regions in China they originated from.

A popular version is ba zhang which is stuffed with pork, water chestnuts and salted egg yolk, while the nyonya (Peranakan) version contains braised pork and candied wintermelon. Kee chang has no filling and is eaten as a dessert, dipped in sugar or gula melaka.