Dragons that Dance: A Brief History of Dragon Dances on Chinese New Year

Project Pengyou intern, Jacob Sierra, investigates the roots of the festive and traditional Lunar New Year dragon dance.


Performers of the dragon dance in the town of Meilin in the southeastern province of Fujian. Photo taken by Michael Yamashita, published on the photo archives of supChina, China newsletter and review.

With Chinese New Year approaching, I noticed a few things happening in Beijing. Shops all around me are closing as residents leave the city in droves to visit their families in the countryside. Red and gold lanterns now flank the lampposts of major streets and images of red and gold dragons cover storefront signs and posters throughout the city.

These sights brought to mind the quintessential Chinese New Year dragon dance. The ‘’ (wǔ lóng) or ‘dragon dance’ features a puppet dragon made of wood and cloth supported by seven-to-ten dancers with poles. It has long been a part of Chinese New Year celebrations, often included in parades. 

As I thought about the Chinese dragon and its celebration through art and dance, I began to wonder: why dragons? What makes the dragon so special to Chinese culture? Sure, Western myths included dragons, but those dragons were never celebrated through dance or art. What is different here in China? I decided to investigate.


Dragons, Emperors, and Legends


Unlike Western perceptions, the dragon is viewed very positively in Chinese mythology. The dragon was the earliest creature to appear in Chinese myths and legends and represented imperial authority, wealth, fertility, and auspiciousness. This association the dragon has had with victory and divine favor in history.

According to tradition, the legendary first Emperor of China, Huangdi (also known as the Yellow Emperor), who supposedly reigned from c.2700-2600 BCE and used the snake in his coat of arms. As he conquered neighboring tribes, he incorporated those tribes’ emblems into his own, creating the image of a creature which some people believe became to be the precursor to the Chinese dragon. This would explain why dragons in Chinese myth are often wingless (contrary to their Western counterparts) and have features of various animals. This also explains why dragons are viewed with respect and awe instead of fear. Since Chinese dragons were connected to the victory of the legendary Emperor and deity, Huangdi, they were traditionally associated with imperial power and wealth.

Throughout a few thousand years, legend and folklore began to surround the mythical Chinese dragon. Dragons became a source of good luck and fortune and individuals seeking their favor by saying prayers, making dragon pottery, and performing dances.


Origins of the Dragon Dance


The dragon dance itself originated sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) as a way to pray to the gods, or perhaps the dragons themselves, for much-needed rain for crop harvests. At the time, dragons were also held responsible for weather like strong winds, hail storms, thunder, lightning, and tornadoes. In fact, this superstition has been carried over into current Chinese expressions. One way of describing a tornado in Chinese is 龙卷风 (pinyin: lóng juǎn fēng), literally meaning ‘dragon volume wind’. Throughout a few centuries, the dragon dance was popularized and made into ceremony for major Chinese holidays.

Have you seen a dragon dance, or do you plan on going to a performance in your city? Let us know in the comment section below! Also be sure to check out the links below to learn more about the dragon dance and other Spring Festival celebrations such as firework lighting, the lion dance performance, and even the Lantern Festival (celebrated on the 15th day of the first month). And don’t forget to attend a Chinese New Year dragon dance performance to see it for yourself!

Want to know more? Check out these links below:

Ancient History Encyclopedia | The Dragon in Ancient China 

China Highlights  | Chinese New Year Dragon Dance

New World Encyclopedia | Chinese Dragon

Gund Kwok | What is Dragon Dance?