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蘇軾《端午帖子詞》“Festive Verse for the Double Fifth Day” by Su Shi





Rare wood of the Imperial Park shades ponds and terraces.

Products of Shu[2] and packages from Wu[3] have come from thousands of miles away.

[One] not only sees loquats[4] on plates,

[But also] often finds bayberry in zongzi.[5]

*From Su Shi shiji 蘇軾詩集 (Collection of Su Shi’s Poetry), edited by Wang Wenhao 王文誥and Kong Fanli 孔凡禮 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982), 2490.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] Present-day Sichuan area.

[3] Present-day Jiangsu area.

[4] There is a nice anecdote in the Lengzhai yehua 冷齋夜話 (Night Talk in the Cold Studio) about Su Shi’s take on the fruit luju 盧橘, which could also be an alternative name of kumquat. Su Shi’s friend Zhang Jiafu 張嘉甫 once asked him what kind of fruit this was. Su Shi said it was loquat (commonly known as pipa 枇杷) and made a reference to Sima Xiangru’s 司馬相如 (ca. 179-117 BCE) “Rhapsody on the Imperial Park” (“Shanglin fu” 上林賦). His bookish friend continued to question, “But Sima Xiangru mentioned both luju and pipa in that rhapsody, so they shouldn’t be the same thing. Also, Ying Shao 應劭 (140-208) said luju was a kind of fruit in the east of Mount Ji. Why don’t you use this reference?” With a smile, Su Shi simply responded, “Because I don’t want to.” Therefore, it is a safe bet that luju means loquat in Su Shi’s dictionary. For a convenient reference:

[5] Zongzi, or “sticky rice dumplings,” is a rice dish made of sticky rice stuffed with sweet or salty fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves. More on this later, with photos.


The poem was written for the Double Fifth Day[6] (27 May) in 1088, when Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) had returned to the capital from his exile in Huangzhou 黃州 and come into the prime of his political career as a result of Grand Empress Dowager Gao’s (1032-1093) patronage. He served as Director of the Ministry of Rites and Hanlin Academician. One of the grand missions of the Hanlin Academicians was to compose festive verse for the court (tiezici 帖子詞). On this occasion, Su Shi wrote twenty-seven poems for the Double Fifth Festival, with six poems each for Emperor Zhezong 哲宗 (1077-1100, ruled 1085-1100), Grand Empress Dowager Gao, and Empress Dowager Xiang, five for Grand Consort Zhu, and four for Lady Feng.

We normally do not expect much creativity or fun in such routinely commissioned poetry for social and festive purposes, but this one by Su Shi, the fifth poem in the set dedicated to Empress Dowager Xiang, caught my attention by its presentation of zongzi with bayberry in it. Some people have taken this opportunity to spread the word in their blogs that Su Shi created this novel zongzi recipe. However, the poem seems to suggest something different: it’s not an excerpt from Su Shi’s cookbook, but an account of his experience in the palace. Also, what the poem describes is apparently not some sort of daily stuff that was available to anyone.

Bayberry zongzi sounds unusual (if not weird) indeed, but several other poets also made similar reports, often in a context related to court life. For me, it’s weird enough to have sweet zongzi as I grew up with savoury zongzi. But as far as I know, they are both very common further up north. The shape of our zongzi is also different from the standard pyramid shape that is everywhere in the media. Our zongzi is rectangular and looks like a camel’s back. We also use banana leaves in addition to bamboo leaves. I remember describing my peculiar type of zongzi to my university roommate from Hubei (central China), who became very curious. She asked me to bring her “maybe ten of them,” assuming they were of the size of a tennis ball. But when I arrived in her hometown with my gift, she was shocked by my zongzi, each about two to three times the size she had imagined. But with hindsight, I think she should have been happier. My mother grew up with zongzi of the length of one’s forearm. Ten of those must be even more horrifying.

Anyway, such is the regional variety of zongzi. I’m not sure whether the bayberry variant has ever been a regional tradition, and we don’t know whether the bayberry stuffing Su Shi had was whole fruit, dried fruit, or mashed fruit. Nevertheless, I’ve found different versions of bayberry zongzi products online, unsurprisingly with Su Shi as their patron. In a sense, Su Shi has indeed created it.

An even more unusual thing is the revival of the Double Fifth Festival. I have always known it was a traditional festival, but from my limited, personal experience, the Double Fifth Day wasn’t really festive until it became a national holiday of mainland China in 2008. The restoration and reiteration of its status as one of the major traditional festivals have brought new holiday plans, new opportunities for sale, and new types of company-subsidised products. Meanwhile, there is new awareness of the tradition and new attempts to rehearse the standard activities associated with this age-old festival. To be honest, I never saw a dragon boat race on this day when I was growing up. Neither did I see a pyramid-shaped zongzi in our local market. My family even used to make zongzi during the Spring Festival instead because the Double Fifth Day was not a holiday. However, this year when I spent the Double Fifth Day (25th June) in my hometown, I was quite surprised to find the little pyramids from textbooks sitting on my family table.

Perhaps my experience of the absence of the festive activities just testifies to a breakdown of the tradition in this small city. Maybe one can say the tradition of this festival has now been revived. But at the same time, it also seems to have been recreated and standardised. I also find it quite amazing to see how easily people can be directed to align with a sanctioned tradition.

I just read a market report which says that savoury zongzi is the favourite of the age group of “over 46.” Well, maybe the heyday of bayberry zongzi or even chocolate zongzi (which do exist!) will eventually come and constitute the festival memory of a new generation. The story will continue, about traditions that are both strong and fragile.

[6] Also known as “Dragon Boat Festival,” this is an annual festival on the fifth day of the fifth month. There are several exorcising activities on this day, including hanging a bunch of scented or odorous plants (e.g. mugworts, garlic, etc.) at the door. One of the common activities on this day, the dragon boat race, is traditionally associated with the poet Qu Yuan 屈原 (ca. 343-278 BCE), who drowned himself in the river.

1-3 (Top) The "textbook" zongzi

4 (Bottom left) My idea of zongzi

5-6 (Bottom right) Zongzi in my mother's hometown


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