With the coming of Duanwu Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, people are busy preparing for the celebration.
The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month according to the Chinese lunar calender in the Warring States Period more than 2,200 years ago.
There are several different opinions on its origin. The most accepted is in memory of Qu Yuan, a famous poet and virtuous official of the Chu Kingdom (Hunan Province) at that time.
As the king refused his suggestion and when the capital of his nation was occupied by invaders, Qu wrote his final poem beside Miluo River in today's Hunan and drowned himself on the fifth day of the fifth month according to the Chinese lunar calender in 278 BC.
People were sad over the patriotic poet's death. They tossed rice and meat into the river to feed the fish, which would protect Qu's body.
To prevent the food from being eaten by dragons, they wrapped the meat in reed leaves and bamboo. That was the original glutinous rice dumpling. In later, wrapping dumplings during the Duanwu Festival became a tradition.
Ancient people believed rivers and the sea were both controlled by dragons. They were also worried Qu's spirit would be harmed by dragons. So they produced some boats with a shape similar to dragons and held races on the river to the thunderous beat of drums to warn dragons not to damage Qu's spirit. The race then became a custom.
There are many other customs attached to the Dragon Boat Festival.
Drinking rice wine on this day is believed to make people healthy and keep insects and snakes away.
People also grind traditional Chinese medicine into powder and put it in special bags called "xiang dai" or (sachet). The scent of the medicine is disliked by insects.
It's also a very welcome present during the festival. Different sachet designs can express various feelings such as love or friendship.
Dumplings and sachets
A foreign woman and child try to make "zong zi," a rice dumpling, in Zhujiajiao Town over the weekend. About 70 foreign diplomats and their families in Shanghai went on the trip. [Photo: Shanghai.gov.cn]
Although there are still two days before the Dragon Boat Festival, Shanghai residents have already started preparing for the important day. Reed leaves, glutinous rice and sachets have become popular at markets.
At the gate of Yuyuan Garden branch of Tonghanchuntang traditional Chinese medicine store, the line of people waiting to buy sachets for the festival is more than 10 meters long. It never seems to get any shorter.
Sachets are usually made of silk with beautiful designs. Workers put several kinds of traditional Chinese medicine powder inside including cloves. It emanates a smell disliked by insects.
"I'd like to buy 10 sachets for me and my cousins' children," said a 30-year-old man surnamed Zhao from Shandong Province. "I hope the sachets bring them health and wisdom."
A store employee surnamed Zhao said they sell about 10,000 sachets a day during the week of the Dragon Boat Festival - far from enough to satisfy demand.
At the restaurants near Yuyuan Garden, glutinous rice dumplings called "zong zi" have been popular with many visitors. Nowadays, people can get dumplings with various stuffings: meat, chestnuts, red bean or sweetened bean paste. But seniors still prefer wrapping dumplings themselves according to tradition.
"I wrap more than 100 dumplings every year," said Yuan Zhang, an 80-year-old resident. "And then I deliver the dumplings to my children. I think homemade dumplings are more delicious."
In recent years, some places introduced "aristocratic dumplings" with stuffings such as shark fin and abalone.
A box with only six shark fin dumplings can cost 220 yuan (US$27).