Is That a Dancing Chinese Dragon or a Lion?

A Chinese Dragon Dance in Taiwan.
••• Cultura Exclusive/Philippe Roy / Getty Images

Wait! That Chinese ‘dragon’ dance you just enjoyed and are about to share with online friends probably isn’t a dragon at all -- it’s a lion. The two are often confused by Westerners who see the performances on Chinese New Year and at other festivals around the world.

Adding to the confusion, the Chinese dragon dance does actually exist, but it’s an entirely different creature altogether. Knowing the difference between the lion dance and the dragon dance is easy!

Lions usually have two performers inside a costume, while dragons require many performers to manipulate their serpentine bodies.

The lions often come across as playful, curious creatures with a penchant for mischief rather than ferocious beasts to be feared. Dragons appear as quick, powerful, and mysterious. Both lion dances and dragon dances are old traditions that demand acrobatic skill and tough training from the performers involved.

Is It a Chinese Dragon Dance or Lion Dance?

The Chinese lion dance is often incorrectly referred to as a “dragon dance” by spectators who aren’t familiar with the tradition. Even Western TV hosts and the media often get the two confused!

Lion dances are usually performed by a two-person team inside of each costume, completely hidden from view. During dragon dances, the many performers manipulating the dragon on poles are within plain view.

You’re watching a Chinese lion dance if you see these things:

  • Two people are usually inside of each lion costume.
  • The mouth opens to receive gifts.
  • Lions are “shaggy” with lots of fur and two big, blinking eyes.

You’re watching a Chinese dragon dance if you observe this:

  • A team of many performers are involved with controlling the dragon.
  • The dragon is segmented, serpentine in shape, and is elevated on poles.
  • Unlike the lions, dragons are sometimes adorned with fireworks.

Where to See Chinese Lion and Dragon Dances

Lion dances are more prevalent than dragon dances, but some larger celebrations will have both styles. Besides Chinese New Year, a guaranteed place to see the dances, you can often observe lion and dragon dances at cultural festivals around the world, business openings, weddings, and generally, anytime a crowd needs to be drawn.

Lion dances can be observed during celebrations all over Asia including the Moon FestivalVietnamese Tet, and other big events in Asia).

Lion Dances at Chinese New Year

Lion dances are a popular tradition during Chinese New Year; you’ll hear the telltale beating of drums and cymbals in Chinese communities all over the world. And as most of the traditions on Chinese New Year, the purpose is to bring good fortune and prosperity to a business or neighborhood for the coming year.​

For good fortune, wait until the lion comes over and bats its large eyes at you, then feed a small donation (preferably inside a red envelope) into its mouth.

Chinese Dragon Dances

Chinese dragon dances are performed by a troupe of people who lift the dragon above their heads. The dragon’s flowing, curving movements are coordinated carefully by poles.

Dragons range from 80 feet long to the record of over three miles long!

Along with the abundant symbolism attached to dragons in Chinese culture, the longer the dragon the more prosperity and good fortune are to be attracted. Dragon dances are often led by someone holding a “pearl” -- a round object representing wisdom -- which the dragon then chases.

Are the Lion and Dragon Dances Kung Fu?

Because of the skill, dexterity, and stamina required for both lion and dragon dances, the performers are often kung fu students, although being a martial artist certainly isn’t a formal requirement. 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.

Because the costumes are costly to maintain and adequate talent is required to learn the dances, the more lions and dragons that a martial arts school can provide, the more influential and successful it is considered.

At one point, lion dances were even banned in Hong Kong because competing troupes would hide weapons in their lions to attack those from rival schools! The old legacy survives: today, the Chinese government requires that schools get a permit before performing the lion dance.