Dragon Dance

Tracing its origins to the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the traditional dragon dance began as a ceremony for worshiping ancestors and praying for rain. It later became more of an entertainment, often performed during Chinese New Year. In Chinese culture, dragons symbolize wisdom, power, dignity, fertility, and auspiciousness, and have also become a symbol of Chinese culture itself. Odd numbers of the dragon’s joints are regarded as auspicious, so people often make an odd-numbered jointed dragon puppet. Right before the dance, the head and the tail of the dragon are connected to its body. Then, someone holding a rod with a large ball at the top leads the dragon during the dance. As the dragon follows the ball’s movement—left and right, back and forth, up and down, and thus moving in waves—it appears to be dancing. In this video from the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program China: Tradition and the Art of Living, members of the Zhejiang Wu Opera troupe from Jinhua in eastern China performed the dragon dance.

Questions for Discussion

  • List some adjectives you would use to describe the dragon dance. Have you ever seen a similar performance in your school or community?
  • Look at artworks depicting dragons. Why are dragons important in Chinese culture?
  • The dragon dance is the work of a team of performers who must carefully coordinate their movements. Choreograph a dance with classmates in which you work together as a team to make collaborative movements.