The Dragon Dance is an integral part of any celebration. The Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival and other major events never fail to feature a performance of the Dragon Dance. The Dragon Dance was first performed during the Song Dynasty for the dual purpose of celebrating and requesting more rain. Dragons come in a wide variety. Common is the multicolored spectacle. As it processes, the dragon is like a ribbon of color threaded through the landscape.
The most common dragons are made from bamboo with the bare structure shaped like a long hollow tunnel. Poles for gripping are installed at regular sections. The structure becomes a cloth dragon when it is wrapped in brightly-colored cloth, and becomes a dragon lantern when candles are lit inside. Horns, whiskers, a movable tongue, and eyes which light up from battery power add to the effect. Other dragons include “Hundred-Leafed Dragons” constructed by weaving bamboo into the shape of a butterfly, “Bench Dragons” which are made up of a number of benches, and “Straw Dragons” which are made by tying bundles of straw together.
Dancing the dragon requires special skills, because the longest dragon can be up to 50-60 meters in length, with the dragon head held between 2 and3 meters above the ground. Only a skilled team can make the Dragon Dance in a graceful and breathtaking manner. It is a hard work especially for the men charged with maneuvering the head and tail sections around.
For each section there are three men, who take turns at carrying. They duck in and out the skin spelling each other as it goes along, their colored silk trousers being all that show, so that it looks like an 80-legged monster, except when the frequent changeovers double the number temporarily.
By swinging the carrying sticks from side to side or moving them up and down, the dragon can be made to sway and undulate, and its dances are really a series of formalized patterns determined by the man who carries the “precious thing” on a stick which the dragon always faithfully follows.
Chinese sources are in some disagreement about what it is supposed to represent. Some say a ball, some a ruby, and from time to time it suggested that it is a spider which is trying to enmesh the dragon.
Another explanation is that it represents the sun, but usually there are other devices which are carried on sticks swarming round the dragon, and one of them has the character for “sun” written on it. The “moon” is another, and then there is a large green fish, and also a couple of balls on either end of the rope like a South American bolas.
There are different kinds of dragons in Chinese mythology, and the functions they perform and the ways in which they are represented differ from place to place. Here is a contrast from north China:
“The rain dragon is paraded through the streets, a dozen coolies acting as living vertebrae under a blue cloth skin painted to look like scales and illuminated by lanterns. Such a monster, undulating in life-like fashion, is most impressive, even terrifying, especially as pandemonium attends his passage. Gongs clang, crackers pop, and bonfires of paper money blaze, while people sprinkle him with water to show what is expected. As the dragon zigzags through the grey old city gate, children scream with terror and delight, and women desirous of sons’ crowd to pick up the burned-out candle-ends that drop from his body, believing them talismans.”
This leaves no doubt but that the dragon’s task is to bring rain, and it is true that water is supposed to be the dragon’s special province – each ocean, lake and river is ruled by its own dragon. But rain-making and flood control are not the only jobs which these normally benevolent monsters perform.
Let’s see following example which is a dragon dance round the villages of the Ha Tsuen area in north-west of the New Territories during a ten-yearly da-jiu ceremony. Since the week-long ceremony was held in late December and early January in the dry winter monsoon, there was no question of rain or flood. What then was its purpose? One of the dancers said: “The dragon goes to lots of villages, and as it passes through it destroys evil so that the village will have good luck.”