The Chinese New Year Dragon Dance figures among the key traditions of Chinese New Year celebrations. In fact, you could argue that it is the main tradition. This has a lot to do with the fact that the dragon in general is a very popular symbol among the Chinese people. Among the things that it symbolizes are strength, supernatural forces, goodness, and good fortune. It is important to note that some don’t just see the dragon as a dragon, per se. Instead, they see it more as a mythical combination of many different animals. Either way, it has established itself as an icon of Chinese culture and is widely exhibited through costumes and dress, especially during Chinese New Year celebrations and other festive occasions.
Dragon Dance Image: Dan Nguyen @ New York City (flickr)
The Dragon Dance dates back to the Han Dynasty (180-230 AD) and plays a major role in Chinese culture. Its importance can largely be explained by the reverence that the Chinese have for the dragon in general. The Chinese people have actually long referred to themselves as "Descendants of the Dragon" and use the mythological beast as a sign of their ethnic identity. The Chinese New Year Dragon Dance is thus a great source of national pride, though its significance doesn’t end there. The dance also helps to mark the end of the year and the welcoming of a new beginning. The Chinese New Year Dragon Dance also serves to drive away evil spirits and to bring luck and fortune to the Chinese people. During the Dragon Dances that are performed during festive celebrations, a constructed dragon that is traditionally made of wood, bamboo hoops, and rich fabric is brought to life by a team of skilled performers. The performers, or dancers, all of whom which are men or boys, rely on highly coordinated movements that have been practiced to great extent. Any mistakes can spoil the performance, but when executed correctly, it is quite mesmerizing.
Lion Dance Image: d.a.n.n.y.c (flickr)
Much like the dragon, the lion is a popular Chinese mascot and a symbol of good fortune. As such, the Lion Dance also plays an important role in Chinese culture and is commonly exhibited during Chinese New Year celebrations and other festive occasions. During a Lion Dance performance, two people don an ornate lion costume. One operates the lion’s head, while the other operates the body and tail. Often times, a third person joins in, using a silk ball or some other device to simulate the act of playing with the lion. You can expect to see performances of both the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance when watching Chinese New Year celebrations in China itself or in such other places where the Chinese New Year is celebrated, including San Francisco and London.
The Chinese Zodiac is another example of a cultural device that can help people better understand Chinese culture on the whole. Both a scheme and a systematic plan of future action, it is based on a 12-year cycle. Each of the 12 years relates to a specific animal and its widely accepted attributes. The animals in question include the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. Depending on which year a person is born, they are associated with the animal that has been designated by the Chinese Zodiac. Basically, in Chinese astrology, the animal signs that are assigned by year have an influence over what others perceive you as being. They also have an influence over how you perceive yourself. It is quite similar to the manner in which people in Western civilizations are associated with their signs within the Western zodiac scheme. It is important to note that the Chinese Zodiac isn’t only relevant to Chinese culture. It is also widely influential in other East Asian countries, such as Japan, Vietnam, and Korea.
Top image: 4nitsirk (flickr)