Wait! That Chinese "dragon" dance you just enjoyed and are about to share on social media probably isn’t a dragon at all—it’s actually a lion. Don't worry: Lots of other people are also incorrectly calling the big-eyed creature a dragon. Even Western media anchors get the two confused when reporting from Chinese New Year celebrations.
Both dance traditions may date back almost 2,000 years, but spectators still often refer to the lion as a "dragon." Although neither creature walked the land in ancient China, both are celebrated as mythical, powerful, and auspicious during Chinese New Year and other important events.
The Difference Between the Chinese Lion and Dragon Dances
Spotting the difference between the two traditions couldn't be easier. Use this one simple test: Lions have two performers inside a costume; one person controls the front legs, head, and mouth while the other controls the hindquarters.
In contrast, dragons require many performers to manipulate their serpentine bodies up on poles.
Here's another way to tell the difference between a lion dance and dragon dance: If you can see the performers in the open, it's a dragon. If two people are hidden inside the animal costume, it's a lion.
Although less common, some "little" lions may be controlled by only one person, but they will still be hidden from view.
The lions usually come across as playful, curious creatures with a penchant for mischief rather than ferocious beasts to be feared. They balance on giant balls and interact to the crowd's delight. The mouth opens and closes, and the eyes can blink. Don't be fooled by the playful antics: Lions are usually controlled by skilled martial artists!
Dragons, held high on poles above the heads of the performers, appear as quick, powerful, and flowing.
Chinese lion dances and dragon dances are both old traditions that demand acrobatic skill and years of tough training from the performers involved.
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. There weren't many lions in ancient China; only a few brought in by outsiders. The tradition of lion dancing may 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.
Lion dances are a popular tradition during Chinese New Year; you’ll hear the telltale beating of drums and crash of 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. The noisy chaos is thought to drive away spirits that don't have good intentions.
Chinese lion dances aren't just performed on Chinese New Year. Troupes are hired for other important events and festivals where a little extra fortune and fun entertainment couldn't hurt.
Lion dances can be fun and interactive. To participate, wait until the lion comes over and bats its large eyes at you. Indicate your appreciation then feed a small donation (ideally inside a red envelope) into its mouth. The red envelopes are known as hong bao in Mandarin and symbolically represent good luck and prosperity.
You are watching a Chinese lion dance if you see these things:
- Lion dances are usually performed by a two-person team inside of each costume; one controls the front legs and head while the other controls the hind legs. Both artists are completely hidden from view.
- The lion's mouth opens to receive gifts.
- Lions are “shaggy” with lots of fur and two big eyes that usually blink.
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 at 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 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! An "average" dragon used in a dance is often close to 100 feet long. The length and number of performers utilized may vary based on the occasion and time of year.
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. Some styles of dragon dances often get led by a performer controlling a “pearl” (a spherical object representing wisdom) that the dragon chases.
You are watching a Chinese dragon dance if you observe these things:
- During dragon dances, the many performers manipulating the dragon on poles are within plain view.
- The dragon is segmented and serpentine in shape; it is elevated on poles.
- Unlike the lions, dragons are sometimes adorned with fireworks that throw off sparks.
- The dragon often chases a ball on a stick controlled by a performer in the front.
Where to See Chinese Lion and Dragon Dances
Lion dances are more prevalent than dragon dances, but some larger celebrations will have both.
Besides Chinese New Year celebrations, a guaranteed place to see the performances, 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.
You'll occasionally see dances performed for business openings and anniversaries at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, among other places.
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, however, 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.
The lion costumes are costly and require effort to maintain. Also, adequate time and talent are required to learn the dances properly. 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! Because only the best students from each school could join a lion dance troupe, the competitive spirit often led to violence during performances.
The old legacy of respect for the skills of lion dancers survives: Today, many governments in Asia require that martial arts schools get a permit before showing off their lion dance. The lions may come across as playful, but don't make them mad!