Both dance traditions date back almost more than a thousand years, but spectators, and even Western news anchors, still get the two confused. The lion and the dragon have similar reputations as being mythical, powerful, and auspicious, yet they differ in many ways.
Lion vs. Dragon Dances
Spotting the difference between the two traditions could not be easier: Whereas lions have two performers inside a costume (one controlling the front legs, head, and mouth and the other controlling the hindquarters), dragons require many performers to manipulate their serpentine bodies, held up by poles.
Another telling factor is whether the performers are visible to the audience. If they are, it's a dragon. If they're hidden, it's a lion. Lions usually come across as playful, curious creatures with a penchant for mischief, whereas dragons are quick, powerful, and flowing. Lions balance on giant balls and interact with the crowd's delight. The mouth opens and closes, and the eyes often blink.
History of the Chinese Lion Dance
No one knows for sure how long the lion dance has been a tradition in China or where it came from originally. It's thought to have been introduced from India or Persia where lions were more common. Early written accounts of the dance appear in Tang Dynasty scripts from the seventh century. Scholars think they were also mentioned in a third-century Buddhist text.
In any case, these dances are a longtime tradition, mostly surrounding Chinese New Year, meant to bring good fortune and prosperity to a business or neighborhood in the coming year. The noisy beating of the drums is thought to drive away spirits that don't have good intentions.
It's customary to participate in the lion dance, actually, by feeding it a small donation in a red envelope (called hong bao). Wait until it bats its giant eyelashes at you, then feed the money into its mouth for good luck.
History of the Chinese Dragon Dance
Chinese dragon dances are also an ancient tradition, perhaps dating back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty. Dragon dances are also performed around Chinese New Year and on other occasions; however, lion dances tend to be a little more popular (perhaps because they require less room and performers).
Dragon dances are typically performed by a troupe of acrobats who lift the dragon above their heads and run with it. The dragon’s flowing, curving movements are coordinated carefully by poles. Dragons range from 80 feet long to the record of more than three miles long. The average size is closer to 100 feet, though.
Odd numbers are auspicious, so look for teams of 9, 11, 13, or 15 performers involved at once. The "ultimate" dragon dance is rare and involves nine (a very auspicious number) choreographed dragons being controlled by an army of performers in a large venue.
Along with the abundant symbolism attached to dragons in Chinese culture, the longer the dragon, the more prosperity and good fortune attracted. In some styles of dragon dances, you'll see the animal trailing a spherical object representing wisdom.
Where to See Chinese Lion and Dragon Dances
Lion dances are more prevalent than dragon dances, but larger celebrations will often have both. Besides Chinese New Year celebrations, a guaranteed place to see the performances, you can often observe them at cultural festivals, business openings at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, weddings, and generally anytime a crowd needs to be drawn in China.
Lion Dances, Dragon Dances, and Kung Fu
Because of the skill, dexterity, and stamina required for Chinese lion and dragon dances, the performers are often kung fu students. Joining a dance troupe is an honor and demands even more time and discipline from martial arts students who already have a regular training regimen.
The more lions and dragons that a martial arts school can produce, the more influential and successful it is considered. Chinese lion dances are a way for a kung fu school to "show its stuff."
During the 1950s, lion dances were even banned in Hong Kong because competing troupes would hide weapons in their lions to attack teams from rival schools. The old legacy of respect for the skills of lion dancers has since been preserved. Today, many governments in Asia require that martial arts schools get a permit before performing.