Remembering Qu Yuan

Luck is like having a rice dumpling fly into your mouth.

— Japanese Proverb

“I ate so many dumplings. Feeling heaty.”

I smiled at this message I received from my best friend in Sibu. Never one to gorge on food, her confession was amusing to me.

I later found out that in conjunction with the Dumpling or Dragon Boat Festival on June 25, she had eaten eight glutinous rice dumplings in the course of two days. Her family bought some while she bought a few.

“I wanted to find out how good they were,” she told me.

Her verdict at the end of her eating spree?

“Commercialised dumplings are not that good,” she said, adding that either the meat strips inside were tough or the red beans were mushy.

Like my friend, I also ate a lot of glutinous rice dumplings, also called ‘chang’ locally, in conjunction with the festival I also wanted to find out how good the local ‘chang’ were. Some of the ‘chang’ were given by friends and I bought a few myself.

The Dumpling Festival is celebrated by the Chinese throughout the world on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar every year. June 25 this year coincided with this date in the lunar calendar.

The Dumpling Festival commemorates the life and death of a Chinese patriotic poet, Qu Yuan, who served the emperor in the Chu kingdom of ancient China. A good minister, he was loved by the people. But evil court officials were jealous of Qu Yuan and they influenced the weak-minded emperor to dismiss and exile him.

Disheartened and angry, Qu Yuan tied himself to a rock and jumped into Mi Luo River in Hunan Province to protest against injustice and corruption.

When the people learnt of Qu Yuan’s death, they rowed their boats to the river to look for his body. After they failed to find it, they beat drums to scare the fish away so that they would not feed on his body. Others threw rice dumplings into the river in the hope that the fish would eat the dumplings instead. Since then, the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar was set aside as ‘Duan Wu Jie’ (Dumpling Festival) in memory of the incident.

Nowadays, dumplings are no longer thrown into rivers. Instead, they are eaten as a testament of the patriotic poet’s self-determination.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, grand dragon boat races to represent the search for Qu Yuan’s body would be organised. This year, such gatherings are banned because of Covid-19. So like the recent Hari Raya Aidifitri and Gawai Dayak, this year’s Dumpling Festival is a low-key affair family members.

During the festival, it is a common practice for friends and relatives to exchange home-made ‘chang’ or those they have bought with each other.

On ordinary days, you can buy ‘chang’ at selected markets but not in large quantities. On the day of the festival, more than the usual amount of ‘chang’ is sold not only at the selected markets but also at some hawker stalls. Nowadays, you can also order your ‘chang’ online. According to my best friend, one woman was selling her ‘chang’ online with many ingredients for more than RM20 each!

Different Chinese dialect groups make different versions of ‘chang’. I bought one Hakka ‘chang’ wrapped in pandan leaves for RM5. The filling consisted pork, Chinese black mushrooms, chestnuts, shrimps and cooked peanuts.

The Nonya and Teochew ‘chang’ given by my friends had pork, Chinese black mushrooms, chestnuts and shrimps as the fillings. They are wrapped in either bamboo or pandan leaves. These are similar to Hainanese ‘chang’ wrapped only in banana leaves.

I actually love red bean ‘chang’ which are filled with sweet red bean paste. I bought two of these dumplings recently ­ a week before the Dumpling Festival.

Half the size of my palm, they cost RM1.50 each. But alas, they are not as easily available as the ‘bak’ (pork) ‘chang’. Perhaps, the demand for red bean ‘chang’ is poor because most ‘chang’ consumers are meat lovers.

Thanks to modernisation and commercialisation, Chinese women now do not have to make their own ‘chang’ — they can just buy them.

But if you are Chinese, it is good to master the art of making your own ‘chang’.

As your friends or family members eat your delicious home-made ‘chang’, they will think of Qu Yuan and of you as well!