Context: This festival comes from my friend JZ, a USC student who grew up in a Chinese Ukrainian household in Toronto. He celebrated both aspects of Chinese and Ukrainian culture and was kind enough to share some of the experiences he’s had with that in his life with me.
JZ: One of the, not most important, but really big Chinese festivals is based on a story. It’s kinda dumb, theres this long backstory that doesn’t matter, but a long time ago this old philosopher went and jumped into a river, a river that actually exists in China. He ended up dying in the river, I think the story says that he killed himself but I don’t really remember. The nearby townspeople were really sad though, because the philosopher was very well liked, so the people began making these rice cakes or rice balls, I’m not sure how to describe them. Then they started throwing the rice cakes into the river so that the fish would eat the rice cakes instead of eating the philosopher. We would eat the rice cakes every year, it has nothing to do with the guy anymore its more like the lore behind the holiday, it kind of explains the origin behind the rice cakes.
Me: Did your family throw the rice cakes into a nearby river or just eat them?
JZ: No we just ate them. It was weird because people will eat these all the time but you like have to eat the rice cakes on this specific festival. I’m sure some people in China throw rice cakes into the rivers but we didn’t. The story just is kind of the lore behind the rice cakes.
Analysis: This festival and related story show some important aspects of Chinese culture. Firstly, the presence of the old philosopher shows the Chinese reverence for the wise and the elderly. In the story, the people feel the need to respect his memory by tossing their own food into the river, showing a respect and embrace of the elderly. Secondly, the supposed origin for a commonly eaten food in China places an emphasis on the importance of tradition and history. As JZ was telling me before he mentioned this story, religion isn’t very big in China and many people are actually atheist. But for many the history and traditions of China tend to replace religious holidays and festivals. A celebrated origin story for an item of food shows a great reverence for the history and ancestry of China.