The Dragon Boat Festival or Duan Wu Jie (端午节) falls on the 5th day of the 5th Moon in the Chinese calendar, and its symbol is the pyramidal rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves, called Zong Zi (粽子). Rice dumplings are on sale throughout the year all over Singapore, but a few days before the 5th Moon Festival, vendors decorate their stalls with flamboyant posters and exhibit a larger quantity and wider variety of dumplings to meet the season’s demand. Many families also prepare this special dumpling at home in celebration of the festival.
Suicide of Qu Yuan
The origin of the rice dumpling is generally traced to Qu Yuan (circa 287 B.C.) who is honoured annually on Duan Wu Jie, often called the “Patriotic Poets Festival.” Qu Yuan was a loyal minister of the State of Chu and was a Court favourite until his displacement by a rival following court intrigue led him to be banished from his beloved motherland. When General Bai Qi of the Qin state launched an attack on the Capital of Chu in the Spring of B.C. 278, Qu Yuan, then in exile, knew that all hope to save the state was lost. Consumed by grief, he wrote the famous poem, Encountering Sorrow, that revealed his intention to commit suicide. With sallow cheeks and dishevelled hair, he went to the shore of the Mi-luo, a tributary of the Dong Ting lake in Hunan, with the intention of ending his life. A fisherman who encountered him, said, “Are you not the Minister? Why should you seek a watery grave?” To which Qu Yuan replied, “The whole country is corrupt, except for me. The people are inebriated, except for me. So it’s better this way.” On that note of resignation and despondence, he clasped a huge stone with both hands and jumped into the Mi-luo and drowned.
Historical accounts assert that as soon as he leapt into the water, the people of Chu rushed to save him, but to no avail. To honour the spirit of the heroic minister, and to prevent the fish from consuming his remains, the villagers threw rice dumplings into the river. To commemorate this day in the years hence, people thus row boats and scatter rice into the water.
The Dragon-Boat Race
It was around the Jin period (265-316 A.D) that the now famous dragon-boat race first took place. A 21st century account sheds light on the dragon boats in Chang-sha, Xia-men, Guang Zhou, and Hong Kong where the Dragon Boat Festival is especially vibrant and the races span several days. In the race, one man stands in each bow, as if looking for the corpse of Qu Yuan, and throws his arms about as though casting rice upon the waters. Others, interspersed among the rowers, wave brilliant flags or beat gongs and cymbals, so that the deafening clamour may frighten away the monster that Qu Yuan feared.
Rituals and Belief
On Duan Wu Jie, Taoist families observe some traditional rituals. In the forenoon, the family pays homage to their ancestors with food offerings at the altar, with dumplings as the main feature and flowers as adornment. Thereafter, the family enjoys the sumptuous food, as if in the company of their ancestors. A special ritual is then held at noon. Offerings are made to what is locally denominated as the “Mid-day Deities”. The offering consists of a plate of dumplings, and a basin of water containing seven varieties of flowers, which are laid out on a table used as a temporary altar. Originally, the Mid-day Deities were charitable physicians who specialized in treating diseases. Hence when the offering ceremony concludes, children take a bath using the water from the basin in the belief that this water is a powerful evil-expelling agent.
Observance in Singapore
Duan Wu Jie is avidly celebrated in Singapore where Chinese newspapers publish annual supplements or special features in commemoration of the patriotic poet. Rice dumplings are also exchanged as gifts between relatives and friends to mark the death anniversary of Qu Yuan. Made with glutinous rice, more traditional dumplings include the ‘bak zhang’, stuffed with pork, chestnuts, dried shrimp, and mushrooms, while the nonya (Peranakan) version contains finely-diced pork and candied winter melon flavoured with a piquant five spice powder. ‘Kee zhang’ has no filling and is dipped in coarse sugar or gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup. Rice dumplings are a mainstay of Singapore’s rich food culture and hotels and restaurants seek to outrival one another by offering rice dumplings with unusual ingredients to showcase the country’s diverse culinary heritage. Separately, dragon boat racing is a popular sport in Singapore and the country plays host to international crews at exciting races held in locations such as Bedok Reservoir, Kallang River and Marina Bay.
About The Author
Zhenxing Zhao is a Senior Teaching Fellow at HASS. His research areas are classical Chinese literature, Chinese intellectual history and Chinese gardens. He teaches the Humanities Core and HASS electives, History of Traditional Chinese Short Fiction, The Chinese Lyrical Tradition and Sages through the Ages. He is a fan of gardens and is currently working on a special research project on establishing the relationship between the Chinese literature and the theory of gardening.