The London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is the second largest cultural event in the Chinese calendar, second only to Chinese New Year. The festival traditionally falls on the 5th day of the 5th month in the Chinese lunar calendar and marks the beginning of the wet season, when farmers began to sow their seeds. The prosperity of the farming community largely depended on sufficient rainfall to ensure a bumper harvest. The dragon in the Chinese Zodiac symbolises the clouds, rain and water, and is said to rule the rivers and lakes. The farming communities began their worship of the dragon by organising dragon boat races to welcome the wet season.
Dragon boat racing also commemorates the death of patriotic statesman and poet Qu Yuan during the Warring States period in the third century. Qu Yuan championed political reform and peace amongst the neighbouring Kingdoms. Under the influence of corrupt ministers, the Emperor of Chu banished Qu Yuan from the Kingdom. During his wandering exile in the countryside, he learnt that his country had been invaded by a rival Kingdom. In despair he committed suicide by leaping into the Milo River. The people raced out in their boats in a vain attempt to save him. They beat their drums and splashed their oars in the water, trying to keep the fish away from his body. To honour his soul and to ensure it did not go hungry in the afterlife, as well as to ward off fish, they also scattered rice into the water.
Today, traditional rice dumplings (or Zongzi), made with glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves, are enjoyed on May 5th as a memorial to Qu Yuan.