Linking the Dragon Boat Festival to Rice Cakes

June 10, 2011

A friend reminded me of the Dragon Boat and Rice Cake Festivals that took place in China earlier this month.

These festivals came about because of the suicide of Ch’u Yuan (343 – 289 BC), an aristocrat of the Ch’u State. He is considered one of ancient China’s greatest and earliest recognized poets.

History/myth tells us that the festival celebrates and honors Ch’u Yuan, who drowned himself in the Mi Lo River as a protest against his government’s actions.

What we do know is that when he was banished from his home, he left in despair feeling his exile was unjust. As he traveled about, he wrote poetry, observed shamanistic folk rites, and learned of legends that influenced his work.

The Dragon Boat Festival, held on the fifth month of the Chinese lunar year, originates from the search for the poet’s body. A popular legend says villagers raced in their boats to the middle of the river and desperately tried to save him, but were unsuccessful. They threw the rice filled dumplings or rice cakes into the water as a food offering to distract the river’s god and the fish away from his body.

The Dragon Boat Festival is also celebrated in San Francisco (and many other cities around the world) and I learned that a Dragon Boat race takes place in San Francisco Bay. While Dragon Boat races are being held in China this month, San Francisco holds its races in September 17-18, 2011 from Treasure Island.

In Beijing, China, the Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Festival, was celebrated early in June.

As for the rice cakes, I suggest watching the embedded YouTube video to see how they are made, which demonstrates a process similar to how my wife makes them.

However, besides the essential sticky rice, the other ingredients are optional.  Sticky rice cakes may also have raisins and black beans added. For centuries, Silk Road caravans leaving China carried rice cakes as rations since they have a long shelf life.

When I checked a list of China’s Public Holidays, the only one listed for June was the Dragon Boat Festival. Then I read that “Zongzi”, traditional rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves, are eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, which is a three-day holiday.

Discover more about Chinese dragons


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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