The legend behind zongzi


L. is a 19-year-old Chinese-American college student currently studying in Los Angeles, California. He grew up his whole life in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia Area, colloquially known as the DMV Area, and as such, feels connected to the local east coast culture. He attributes his connection to his Chinese culture through his family, not so much Chinese media.


This legend in Chinese folklore and culture serves to explain why a certain food
(zongzi) dating from long ago is still eaten so prominently today. It involves human conflict and unique usage of the zongzi with a recurring but never fully complete end to the story.

Main piece: 

Q: “Can you tell me more about the legend behind zongzi?”

A: “Alright, zongzi are wrapped up in banana leaves and made of sticky rice with filling in the middle like meat, mushrooms, and salted egg mixed in together along with peanuts and other beans too. They’re wrapped into the shape of a triangular pyramid. The reason why they started is according to Chinese legend, there used to be a famous Chinese poet, scholar, and government politician who lived a long time ago during the warring states period. So he was very respected, very wise, and everybody loved him, but unfortunately, the court did not because while he had the best interests of the people at heart, they did not and just wanted to fill their pockets. The court officials slandered him and decided to banish him. Now that he was exiled, the court made more and more stupid decisions as he was forced to watch from afar. Seeing this, he felt so sad and decided to end it all by killing himself. He jumped into a river and drowned, sunk beneath the waves. But everybody loved him and wanted to keep his body safe, so they tossed zongzi into the river so the fish would eat those instead of his body. As long as the fish are fed with zongzi, his body will be safe in the riverbed. That is why people today eat zongzi.”


This story behind the zongzi cultural food item can be categorized as a legend within the context of folklore studies because there is understood truth value to its real world history. The warring states period was a formative era in ancient Chinese history, so it is natural that folk legends propagated from it to this day. While not exactly a myth, this legend through the lens of Levi-Strauss’s paradigmatic structuralism can help to uncover the key binary oppositions present throughout the story. Some of these key binary oppositions include individualism versus collectivism and hope versus surrender. Being a man of the people, the protagonist of this legend embodied collectivism and was diametrically opposed to the other greedy officials who represented the flip side of individualism. However, despite his upstanding character, eventually he lost all hope of enacting lasting reform and so, committed suicide as an ultimate act of surrender. Even after this, his supporters sought to preserve his body from being desecrated by the fish, demonstrating their hope to continue championing their cause even after their leader had fallen.


For another version collected by a Chinese scholar, see 

Jennifer Lim. (1996). Zongzi and Its Story. Women of China, 5, 52–52.