Dragon boats, zongzi and the poet

The nice lady who made us egg sandwiches every morning in her small shop also demonstrated how to make zongzi, a traditional Chinese rice snack that symbolizes China's annual Dragon Boat Festival. Photo by Andrea Zarate

The nice lady who made us egg sandwiches every morning in her small bakery also demonstrated how to make the traditional Chinese rice snack zongzi during the lunar festival, Beijing, June 2011. Photo by Andrea Zarate

Our stay in Beijing coincided with the lunar festival, which occurs each June and involves racing ornately decorated dragon boats on Chinese rivers–a tradition emulated here in Austin, Texas, and other Western cities.

The festival is held to honor the Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who despite writing more than 2,000 years ago is still remembered with a major national holiday, though as Chinese society develops and modernizes the tradition’s relevance hangs in the balance

As we discovered in the hutong–a narrow residential street or alley –beside which our hotel was located, the festival also involves the making and eating of sweet and tasty zongzi: cone-shaped wedges of sticky rice wrapped in reed leaves.

Dragon boats and zongzi serve as fitting symbols. Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself into the Miluo River of Hunan Province after falling foul of the political elite’s prevarications and being banished.

The locals were so distraught they took boats onto the river and threw rice into the water, hoping it would prevent the fish from disturbing Qu Yuan’s body.

My soul all of a sudden does depart
Leaving behind th’ flesh which withers away.”
–“The Pilgrimage,” Qu Yuan.