Monday, 2 June 2014

Festival of the patriotic poet

A bit of cultural discourse today. As this is the fifth day of the Chinese fifth lunar month, we Chinese are celebrating the Chang festival. Since about a week ago, I've been noticing vendors starting to come out in force to hawk their glutinous rice cakes at the Kampong Baharu market in Bukit Mertajam. There were already quite many of them yesterday but today at the market, the vendors were everywhere! A feast for everyone.

There are all sizes available but the one common feature is the traditional tetrahedron bamboo wrap. (I say traditional because I know that in certain quarters of George Town, there are Chang sellers that prepare a version shaped like a small compact pillow.)

Anyway, it takes deft fingers and a certain degree of expertise to wrap up these Chang in bamboo leaves and I'm proud to say that my wife is rather good at it. Perfection comes from constant practice and come this annual festival, she had been helping her mother prepare the Chang at her home. But for the past two or three years already, she had stopped making her delicacy due to age.

The story of the Chang is generally attributed to the patriotic poet, Chu Yuan (屈原), who is remembered annually during this Fifth Moon Festival. The story goes that Chu Yuan was a loyal minister of the state of Chu (楚) and was a Court favourite until his replacement through Court intrigues. As a consequence, he was banished.

When General Pai Chi (白起) of the Tsin state (秦國) launched a second attack on the Chu capital of Ying (郢) in the spring of 278 BC, Chu Yuan knew that all hope to save the state was lost. Filled with grief, he went to the shore of the Mi-Lo River (汨羅江) to commit suicide.

Chu Yuan went out by boat to the middle of the river. Some fishermen on the far shore recognised him and asked why he sought a watery grave, to which the poet replied: "The whole country is corrupt except me. The people are inebriated except me."

"But in that case, wouldn't it be better for you to move with the trend and rise in power?" Chu Yuan replied that he preferred a death of honour and to be interred in the belly of the fishes of the river. So saying that, he clasped a huge rock with both hands and jumped into the Mi-Lo River and drowned.

The story continues that as soon as he jumped into the water, the fishermen beat their drums and rowed out furiously in their boats to try and save him. However, it was in vain. This was later followed by the throwing of rice into the river for the spirit of the heroic former minister. As this incident happened on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the people on the shores began remembering him by beating their drums and rowing out in their boats annually to scatter rice dumplings into the river. That was also how the dragon boat races came into being. Nice story, yah?

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