MANY traditional Chinese foods are intended to honor either gods or divinized historical figures. Zongzi are no exception.
The special food is meant to honor Qu Yuan, a pioneering poet and patriotic official in ancient China during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.).
Qu Yuan served as a minister to the Chu State. A wise and articulate man, he was loved by the common people.
He did much to fight against the rampant corruption that plagued the court --- thereby earning the envy and fear of other officials.
Persuaded by those officials' calumnies, the king banished Qu Yuan to a remote area. The poet despaired of the government and its policies. Hearing that his country had been defeated by enemies, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River of todays Hunan Province, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C.
As he was deeply loved by the people, the local folk did what they could to search for him in the river.
They rushed out in long boats, beating drums to scare the fish away, and throwing zongzi into the river to prevent the fishes from attacking his body.
Since that time, it has been a customary on this day to enjoy zongzi as a memorial to the patriotic poet. In commemoration of the initial attempts to find Qu Yuan's body, boat races are also held, and the day is also known as the Dragon Boat Festival.