Enter the Dragon

Updated: 2012-01-26 07:53

By Zhang Kun (China Daily)

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 Enter the Dragon

A foreign tourist and a local resident share a light moment at the Ditan Park Temple Fair in Beijing on Tuesday. Chen Xiaogen / For China Daily

What is Spring Festival without a dragon and lion dance? To get a real feel of this fascinating art, visit Sanlin in Shanghai, writes Zhang Kun.

It is the symbol of the nation and of potent and auspicious powers. It has control over water, rainfall, hurricane and flood. It is also the symbol of good luck. Chinese people have revered it for thousands of years. And this is its year in the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Dragon. At the beginning of every Chinese lunar year, Chinese people both at home and abroad play with this mythical creature. They carry it on bamboo sticks in parades on streets, carve its head on boats which they race on rivers, lakes and even seas, have named a type of noodle after its beard and perform a dance named after it.

"A dragon has lots of auspicious meanings; it's the harbinger of happiness and good fortune and has sublime connections to imperial power and Chinese nationality," says Li Xu, director of Zhangjiang Museum and curator of a dragon theme show at Lifehub@Jinqiao, a shopping mall in Shanghai's Pudong New Area.

"Many people believe playing with a dragon brings good fortune," Li says. "Chinese people have spread the 'dragon cult' across the whole world and made people outside China realize that the Chinese dragon, or long, is not the fierce, fire-breathing vile monster of the West." It is a benevolent creature and legendary protector of people.

While the dragon boat race is held in early summer, or on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and dragon beard noodle is served in early spring, or on the second day of the second lunar month, the dragon dance is the most important event of the lunar new year. Across the world, Chinese communities celebrate Spring Festival, the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, with firecrackers, jiaozi (dumplings filled with meat and vegetables) and dragon and lion dance.

So popular has dragon dance become among Chinese, both at home and abroad, that international competitions, guided by well-compiled rulebooks, are now a regular affair. The winners get to win trophies, gold medals and great honors.

One of the places to look for famous dragon dancers in Shanghai is 147 Donglin Street in Sanlin in the Pudong New Area. The place has an exhibition of photographs, videos, trophies and certificates of dragon and lion dance champions. Sanlin has won fame for dragon and lion dance performances. Its teams, comprising farmers from Sanlin, have performed at the opening ceremony of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, and the anniversary celebrations to mark the return of Hong Kong and Macao to China.

The township has hosted four international dragon and lion dance competitions, and its performers have won many international awards. "Dragon dance started in ancient times as part of the ceremony to pray for a good harvest and prosperity, and gradually developed into a celebration," says Lu Dajie, head of the Dragon Lion Association of Shanghai. "Now it's a form of entertainment enjoyed by Chinese all over the world, and a type of game recognized by the Olympic Council of Asia."

Lu, 63, has written some of the rules that are followed in international dragon dance competitions. Lu was born in a farmer's family and, as a child, used to follow dragon dancers along the streets of Sanlin trying to imitate their moves and nuances along with other boys.

The passion was to change his life. "I was an amateur choreographer and director of folk dance in the 1980s, when I combined dragon and lion dance in a formal dance show with drum and gong music." So successful was the farmer-turned-choreographer's composition that he did further and in-depth research into folk dance to become a real expert in dragon and lion dance.

"At first it was a parade with dancers down the streets with five to nine people holding a mock dragon on bamboo sticks and making simple movements to imitate a moving dragon," he says.

More complicated movements evolved and dancers began occupying the central position on an open field to wave their dragons into flights and floats. Now, two dancers dress to look like lions and stage a small, mock fight, complete with signature lion movements such as scratching and licking.

"After it developed into a formal sport for competition, routine stunts gave way to more challenging ones. The modern dragon and lion dance is an artistic combination of Chinese martial arts, acrobatics and gymnastics," Lu says. "To win a championship, you have to show speed, agility and the difficult skill needed to maneuver the dragon, which need years of hard practice and are still developing, with new movements being created all the time."

Dragon and lion dancers from Sanlin have also performed regularly at the Spring Festival celebrations organized by the Shanghai municipal government for the past seven years. On Dec 31, Lu led a group of 40 dancers in a rehearsal at the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, before recording a performance at a TV studio and staging a show at Longhua Temple.

"We're usually busy during the lunar new year season ... This year we've been particularly busy because 2012 is the Year of the Dragon," Lu says.

One of the dancers in Lu's troupe, Zhou Zhijun, has been performing for almost 10 years. "In the beginning, I played less important roles like holding the (dragon's) tail or middle part of the body. After I became more experienced, I got promoted as the head," says the man in his late 30s and father of a 7-year-old boy.

"I work as a clerk in a property management company ... (and) perform the dragon dance for fun and to get some exercise ... it's also a part-time job," Zhou says.

Sanlin used to be a farming village, but over the past decade, most of the rice fields have given way to residential and commercial buildings. "Only a small part of the fields remain now where grandmas grow a few vegetables for their families," says Zhou.

All the dancers in Lu's troupe - 18 men and women for two full-length dragons, four men for the lion dance and 20 women to play lion cubs - are from Sanlin. Though they still call themselves "farmers", none of them is actually engaged in farming. Their jobs include that of security guards, construction workers, cashiers at grocery stores and other professions.

"We ask our employers for a day's leave when we have a dragon dance performance to stage. Our town is famous for the dragon dance, and our employers are understanding and grant us off days to perform," Zhou says. "Local kindergartens, primary and middle schools have their own dragon dance. We also have grandmas and grandpas performing at community celebrations."

Dragon dance has taken Zhou and his fellow townsfolk to many places. "We've taken part in competitions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and some Southeast Asian countries. Dragons from different places have different looks. The finest and most expensive ones are made in Hong Kong, Sichuan dragons have particularly large heads, and dragon heads in Beijing are so heavy that you can't possibly win a champion waving it at high speed."

Dragon and lion dance has become so popular over the past few years that more than 20 companies in Shanghai alone are making money from it. "We offer performances at opening of shopping malls, companies and conferences, and all kinds of events," says Lu Yonggang, president of Jinpeng Culture Co Ltd. "We offer dragon and lion dance training too. Whether you want to learn out of interest or to stage a show to impress colleagues at a party of your company, we can help you."

 Enter the Dragon

Residents in Southwest China's Chongqing municipality perform the dragon dance during a local arts festival on Dec 31, 2011. Chen Cheng / Xinhua