Dragon Dance in China | Dragon Vibe
Dragon Dance in China

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Dragon Dance in China

The Dragon Dance also called "Running with the Dragon Lantern in Hand" or "Dance with the Dragon Lantern in Hand" is one of the specific folklore activities in China.

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The Dragon Lantern is traditionally made from thin strips of bamboo, silk and lanterns. The head, body and tail of the dragon are made from the bamboo lamellae, then the fine, transparent silk is glued to the lamellae, and finally the palps, scales and legs are painted on the silk.

Dragon lanterns have different lengths. Normally, the shortest ones are in three parts and the longest ones have more than ten, but mostly odd numbers. A handle is placed under each part of the dragon lantern so that dancers can hold it. At the end, lamps are lit in each part and the dragon lantern is finished.

Dragon Dance in Shanghai

When dancing with the dragon lantern in hand, a person holds a bead-like object running in front of the dragon, and the whole dragon has to follow it; this requires strength, skill and endurance, which is why it is often performed by martial arts practitioners. Of all the performers, the ball carrier, the head carrier and the tail carrier are the most important.

  • The ball carrier is equivalent to a commander and has to take care of the whole lantern-dragon's movements.
  • The head carrier is the soul of the lantern-dragon, and his movements will influence the coordination of the whole dragon.
  • The tail bearer often has to perform movements such as rolling, hopping, etc., but cannot see the movements of others, so he has to rely on regular training and act according to certain patterns.

During the dance, the dragon is accompanied by traditional music played with drums, cymbals and a gong.

The dragon dance existed during the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is usually performed on traditional days such as Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and Mid-Autumn Festival accompanied by other activities such as firecrackers, lion dances, mimes and other balancing games.

To this day, dragon dancing is still a very popular activity and dragon lanterns have been taken out of the country to dance all over the world.

Dragon dance in Tokyo

1. History

Oriental dragons, which are water spirits, are supposed to possess among their qualities power, dignity, fertility, wisdom and bring happiness. Their appearance is frightening, but they are of benevolent disposition, and have thus come to be the emblem of imperial authority. The movements of the dance traditionally symbolize this historical role of the dragons as figures of power and authority.


Representation of the dragon Yinglong


During the Han Dynasty, various forms of dragon dance are mentioned. Rain dances performed during droughts often involve images of dragons, which were associated with rain in ancient China, such as the Yinglong dragon or the Shen-long dragon, which determined how much wind and rain was needed. Chunqiu Fanlu, a text written by Dong Zhongshu during the Han Dynasty, contains a description of a kind of dragon dance designed to bring rain, performed by children and adults, accompanied by clay figurines representing dragons; their number and color varied according to the time of year. Other dances involving dragons can be found in baixi (百戲), a kind of show popular at the same time, close to the Chinese circus, where actors in disguise imitated the movements of animals, fish and dragons. In his Poem of the Western Capital (西京賦), Zhang Heng mentions several of these mimes, such as a scene where a fish changes into a dragon. These ancient dances are quite different from today's dragon dance; their representations on bas-reliefs show cumbersome figurines, unlike today's light dragons, which allow for more realistic manipulations.

Dragon parade in Seatle

Chinese dragon parade in Seattle


These dances continue to be mentioned under the Tang and Song dynasties. For example, in the Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (Dreams of the Splendors of the Eastern Capital, a work of the Song Dynasty), there is a description of figurines resembling the Dragon Lantern (龍燈) used during the Lantern Festival. It was a dragon made of grass and cloth, inside which many candles were placed. The dragon is a dragon made of herbs and cloth, and is used to make the lanterns and candlesticks. These lanterns are carried through the streets at night during the festival, and this parade may have evolved into the modern dance (which takes place mostly during the day).

Various other dragon dances have appeared in China. For example, in the Tongliang xian, a cult to a snake totem gave rise to a dance during the Ming Dynasty, which became popular during the Qing Dynasty. In Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, the dragon is made up of a human chain of dozens or even hundreds of dancers; in Pujiang xian, the dragon's body consists of wooden stools. There may be more than 700 distinct dragon dances.

After the revolution, the Chinese regime promoted a variety of traditional dances, which contributed to the popularity of the current form of dragon dance, which is now widespread not only in China, but in Chinese communities around the world.

2. Chinese Dragon Dance

A. The Dragon in China

In China, dragons are considered benevolent beings.

Chinese dragons have a fundamental difference from their European counterpart: their shape is generally slender and can be found in many artistic representations of this creature.

Furthermore, within popular Chinese beliefs, the dragon is a kind of deity of aquatic phenomena: waterfalls, rivers, seas, etc.

It is the dragons that determine droughts or floods. Sometimes they even have a reputation for being able to control the climate, especially rain. They can possess many other supernatural powers depending on the source of the stories and legends!

Until not so long ago, most Chinese villages, especially those near a water source, had to have a temple dedicated to the local dragon. This allowed the population to offer sacrifices or offerings, sometimes alive, to the dragon, in order to appease it and obtain its help or forgiveness.

The Dragon (Long) is one of the four sacred animals that can be found in China along with the Phoenix (Fenghuang), the Unicorn (Qilin) and the Turtle. In addition, the dragon symbolizes power and talent, which is why some people who are brilliant or intelligent are often referred to as dragons.

It is thanks to its extremely rewarding and positive connotation that the dragon very quickly became the symbol of the powerful Chinese emperors, and by extension, the symbol of Chinese culture and tradition.

Chinese Dragon

The Chinese Dragon is an interesting combination of several animals:

  • Its horns are those of a deer,
  • Its ears are those of a bull,
  • Its eyes look like a rabbit's,
  • Its body has fish scales.
  • Its legs have tiger claws,

If you would like to know more about that, don't miss our article about the Dragon in China, its importance, its origin and its symbolism.

B. Interpretation of the Dragon Dance

The length of these dragons ranges from 25 meters to a record length of about 5 kilometers! An average dragon used in a dance is usually about 30 meters long.

In the Dragon Dance (wǔ lóng), up to 50 people use sticks to hold the dragon. The Chinese Dragon Dances are performed by a troupe of acrobats who raise the dragon above their heads. The fluid, curved movements of the dragon are carefully coordinated with poles.

Dragon dances are often led by an interpreter who controls a "pearl" - a sphere representing wisdom - that the dragon is chasing.

The dragon is segmented and is shaped like a serpentine.

During dragon dances, many performers manipulate the dragon on poles that are visible to the audience.

C. Symbols

The dragon is very important in Chinese beliefs. It was once the symbol of the Chinese emperors. So it symbolizes, among other things, power, wisdom and fertility.

Up to 15 artists can control the dragon. Odd numbers are a good omen.

In addition to the abundance of dragon-related symbols conveyed in this dance, it is also noted that the longer the dragon is, the more prosperity and fortune will be attracted.

3. The structure of the dragon

The sinuous body of the dragon is made up of articulated sections supported by poles, with two special sections for the head and tail; it is assembled by connecting series of hoops in each section. Traditionally, dragons were made of wood, with bamboo hoop frames, all covered with rich fabrics; in modern times, these materials have been replaced by aluminum and lighter plastics.

Dragon head

Dragon head


The length of the dragons generally ranges from 25 to 35 meters for models that promote acrobatic dances, and from 50 to 70 meters for parade and ceremonial models. However, these sizes depend on the resources available, as a small organization cannot afford a dragon that is too large and requires special skills and excessive expense to handle.

Dragon dancers

Dancers holding dragons on poles


A size of 34 meters divided into nine main sections, carried by 81 hoops, is generally recommended. But there are longer dragons, up to 46 sections, and exceptionally large dragons are sometimes built in an attempt to bring as much good luck as possible to the community. The current record (Guinness approved) is a dragon over 5 km long.

Historically, the dragon dance could be performed with a variety of colors and types of dragons, but green is most often chosen as the main color, symbolizing an abundant harvest. Other colors include yellow, symbolizing empire, gold or silver, symbolizing prosperity, and red, representing joy.

4. Differences between the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance

The Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance are quite easily confused for someone who has no discerning eye. These two folk traditions are over 1000 years old.

Although neither creature probably ever existed in ancient China, both are celebrated as deities, especially for their magisterial powers. These celebrations are observed especially during the Chinese New Year, but also during other important events.

Lion dance

A. Differences

  • Number of artists : Lions are usually two inside a suit, while dragons need a multitude of individuals to handle their long streamers.
  • Lions are fun: Lions appear to viewers as fun and curious creatures with a slight penchant for mischief, but they are not ferocious beasts to be feared.
  • Dragons are imposing: Dragons, on the other hand, appear fast, powerful and mysterious.
    Fireworks: Unlike lions, dragons are sometimes adorned with fireworks that produce sparks.
  • Popularity: Lion dances are a little more popular during celebrations. Perhaps because they require fewer seats and performers.

B. Similarities

  • Ancient Traditions: The lion and dragon dances are both old Chinese traditions.
  • Experienced Artists: Both dances require acrobatic skill and years of difficult training for the performers.

5. Execution

The dragon dance is performed by a team highly trained to imitate the winding and undulating movements attributed to these river spirits. Synchronization of the different parts of the dragon is essential to achieve a realistic effect, and in particular the head, which can weigh up to 14 kg, must coordinate with the body movements and the rhythm of the drum. The fifth section, located in the middle of the body, gives an indication of the movements of the whole. The dragon is often preceded by a dancer holding a spherical object symbolizing a pearl.

Fire Dragon Dance

Fire Dragon Dance


The choreography of the dance depends on the skills of the dancers. Among the codified figures are "the cave of clouds", "the whirlpool", "the search for the pearl", or "the dragon circles the pillar". These movements have a symbolic meaning, so "the search for the pearl" shows that the dragon is always in search of wisdom.

The basic movement of the dragon resembles that of a wave, and is obtained by the successive swings of each section. More complex formations are limited only by the creativity of each team, the most common being a spiral run that causes the dragon's body to spin and twist, forcing the dancers to jump over certain sections of the body. Other advanced maneuvers include various corkscrew rotations, and acrobatic movements where actors climb on each other's legs or shoulders to increase the height of the dragon's movements.

double dragon dance

A double dragon dance performed by villagers in Zhaiyinggu, China


Participating in a dragon dance team requires both athletic and artistic qualities, which is why it is often seen done by martial arts practitioners. The basic techniques are simple to learn, but a long training is necessary to achieve a proper coordination of the team.

A double dragon dance (rarely shown in the West) involves two groups of dancers intertwining their dragons. Even more rarely are performances involving the traditional nine dragons (nine symbolizing perfection). Such dances, requiring large numbers of participants from several organizations, are only possible under the patronage of a regional or national government.

6. Are the Dragon Dances Kung Fu?

A. Need for time and talent

Because of the skill, dexterity and endurance required for the Chinese dragon dances, artists are often students of kung fu.

Although being a martial artist is certainly not a formal requirement, joining a dance troupe is an honor. It requires even more time and discipline on the part of martial arts students, who already have a busy and regular training regime.

In addition, it takes time and talent to learn the dances well.

kung fu master

B. Expensive Costumes

In addition, dragon costumes are expensive and require maintenance efforts.

C. Influence of these dances in Kung Fu

The more dragons a martial arts school can produce, the more influential it will be. Chinese dragon dances are therefore a way for a kung fu school to do business!

7. Competitions

Numerous dragon dance competitions are held all over the world. Strict rules govern the structure of the dragon and the movements allowed, aimed at enhancing the speed and agility of the dancers. The dragon's head is smaller, allowing whip movements; the body parts are made of aluminum and PVC.

Performances last between 8 and 10 minutes, and are accompanied by a percussion orchestra. Recently, luminous dragons (painted with fluorescent paints glowing in black light) have appeared in competition.

Dragon Dance competition

Dragon Dance competition in Kunshang, Shanghai, 2013

8. Dragon dance in the arts

A. Literature

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, "The Great Chinese Dragon", published in his 1961 anthology, "Starting from San Francisco", is inspired by the dragon dance.

In Earl Lovelace's novel, "The Dragon Can't Dance", the theme of dance and carnival is used to explore history and social change in the Caribbean.

Arthur Ransome describes dragon dances in "Missee Lee", part of the "Swallows and Amazons" series set in 1930s China.

B. Cinema

Once Upon a Time in China IV describes a dragon dance tournament organized by the Germans to test the Chinese.

Once Upon a Time in China IV


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