Chinese Lion Dance or Dragon Dance?

How to Know the Difference Between the Lion Dance and Dragon Dance

Chinese Lion Dance
Pascal Deloche/Getty Images

Wait! That Chinese "dragon" dance you just enjoyed and are about to share online probably isn’t a dragon at all — it’s a lion. Don't worry: you aren't alone. Even Western TV hosts and the media often get the two confused!

Both dance traditions date back well over a thousand years, but spectators still often refer to the lion as a "dragon." Although neither creature existed in ancient China, both are celebrated as mythical, powerful, and auspicious — especially during Chinese New Year and other important events.

Is It a Chinese Dragon or Lion?

So, what's the difference between the Chinese lion dance and dragon dance?

Knowing the difference is easy with one simple test: Lions usually have two performers inside a costume, while dragons require many performers to manipulate their serpentine bodies.

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. Dragons appear as quick, powerful, and mysterious.

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. There weren't many lions in ancient China, so the tradition may have been introduced much earlier from India or Persia. Early written accounts of the dance appear in Tang Dynasty scripts from the 7th century.

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.​

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 entertainment couldn't hurt.

To participate, wait until the lion comes over and bats its large eyes at you, 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’re watching a Chinese lion dance if you see these things:

  • Lion dances are 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 actually blink.

The Chinese Dragon Dance

Chinese dragon dances are also ancient traditions, although lion dances are a little more popular at celebrations — perhaps because the latter requires less room and performers.

They're performed by a troupe of acrobats 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! An "average" dragon used in a dance is usually close to 100 feet long.

As many as 15 performers may be controlling the dragon. Odd numbers are auspicious, so look for teams of 9, 11, or 13 performers involved at once.

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 a performer controlling a “pearl” — a sphere representing wisdom — that the dragon chases.

You’re 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.
A Vietnamese Dragon Dance for Tet
© Roland Tanglao / Creative Commons via Flickr

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 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.

Lion dances are organized for the Moon FestivalVietnamese Tet, and other big events in Asia.

Are the Lion and Dragon Dances Kung Fu?

Because of the skill, dexterity, and stamina required for Chinese 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.

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 survives: today, many governments in Asia require that martial arts schools get a permit before showing off their lion dance.

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