Once impoverished village thrives through Zongzi industry

Zongzi, glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reeds, are the sweetest taste in the memory of Zhang Tong, who has been away from home for 11 years.

Zongzi, glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reeds, are the sweetest taste in the memory of Zhang Tong, who has been away from home for 11 years.

The 26-year-old graphic designer now works in Taiyuan, northern China's Shanxi Province, more than 200 kilometers from her hometown at the foot of a hill in Qingtang Village, Shanxi's Linxian County.

Zongzi are traditional delicacies that Chinese people eat on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, which fell on Friday this year. Zongzi commemorate the death of the famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).

Before every Dragon Boat Festival, Zhang would receive Zongzi from her mother. The taste brings back her memories of home and ignites a sense of nostalgia.

"An old saying goes, 'Nothing tastes better than rock candy, and nowhere is better to live than Qingtang,'" Zhang said, referring to her hometown. "With abundant water resources, the village is not only suitable for living but for making Zongzi as well."

Half of Qingtang's 900 mu (60 hectares) of farmland grows reeds – the best raw material for Zongzi. The dry climate also makes it an ideal land for one Zongzi filling: high-grade millet.

Early in the morning, Zhang Tong's father Zhang Qinghai and his wife Wang Chunlan pick fresh reeds and start their busy day.

"Boiling the reeds on a low heat for about one hour makes them soft but resilient with a special fragrance," said Wang, a master at making the sticky rice dumplings.

Fermentation is a unique process of Qingtang Zongzi. Zhang Qinghai has buckets of millet soaked in water and coated with white fungus. Fermentation takes about two weeks – the secret for softer and silkier Zongzi.

The traditional way to make Qingtang Zongzi is wrapping three reeds in a funnel shape and adding about 100 grams of millet. The leaves are then tied with thin lotus leaves before being simmered for five hours.

However, the delicate rice dish did not always bring fortune to villagers in the past. "Local residents only made Zongzi for the festival and sold reeds for the rest of the year," Zhang Qinghai said.

"Ten years ago, 1 kilogram of reeds could be sold for at most 4 yuan (about 60 US cents)," said Zhang Xinwen, former Party secretary of Qingtang Village. "If it were not for the great support and favorable policies of the government, we could still be mired in poverty."

The Zongzi industry in Qingtang was planned out in 2012, but took off in 2014 thanks to China's anti-poverty campaign. The local government started to fund roads and factories, and the small Zongzi gradually developed into a big industry.

In 2018, Qiantang Village was lifted out of poverty. In February this year, a Zongzi industrial zone with an annual output value of 100 million yuan was put into operation near the village, creating more than 200 jobs.

"The annual per capita income in the village was only about 2,000 yuan in 2012, but that number is expected to surpass 20,000 this year," Zhang Xinwen said.

Zhang Qinghai and his wife's annual income from making Zongzi has risen from about 70,000 yuan to nearly 150,000 yuan in just three years.

Their daughter Zhang Tong married last year and settled down in the city. "Every time I go back to the village, seeing the green reeds and smelling the aroma of Zongzi, I know immediately that I'm home," she said.

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