Choong Chit is celebrated in commemorating of a heroic gesture and a tragic event which took place in ancient China more than 2,000 years ago. The government of the Kingdom of Chir was a corrupt one, and, after jealous rivals falsely accused him of treason, a well-loved statesman and poet, Chu Yuan, was banished. In despair, and perhaps as a final act of protest against the government, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River and drowned.
The Chinese people have never forgotten this desperate, heroic act.
And when fishermen raced their boats to recover his body before it could be devoured by fish, beating drums and throwing rice dumplings into the water to distract them, they founded a tradition that continues to this day.
Each year, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, teams of paddlers re-enact that frantic rush to save Qu Yuan, powering long, narrow boats with the ferocious heads of dragons mounted on the prow through the water to the frenzied, rhythmic beating of drums. It is not known how the dragon-boat prow came into being, but it is thought that, over the years, the fierce-looking boat-heads were added to ward off evil water spirits.
Tradition demands that special rice-and-meat dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves are eaten at this time of year. These symbolize the food which was thrown into the Mi Lo river to stop fish from eating Qu Yuan's body, and to appease his spirit.
An additional legend is attached to the pyramid-shaped, leaf-wrapped rice dumplings. About the year 40 BC, a high-ranking official revealed to fishermen that their offerings were being eaten by the River Dragon. He suggested they wrap the rice in leaves first, and then tie them with the lucky five-coloured threads, which the dragon-monster dreaded. The fishermen followed the official's advice and used palmleaves to wrap the rice into pyramid-shaped dumplings which they named choong, because choong sounds like the Chinese word for palm.
Today choong are wrapped in bamboo leaves. Popular varieties include glutinous rice with savoury meats and beans; sweet or salty bean-filled dumplings; and small, yellow-green concoctions, made of glutinous rice.