The dragon dance, also known as longwu (龙舞) or longdeng (龙灯), is a traditional Chinese dance performance involving a team of performers using poles to rhythmically move a dragon prop. The dance is performed during Chinese festive celebrations such as Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, as well as other special occasions. The dragon dance originated in China but has since spread to countries like Singapore.
The history of the dragon dance dates back more than two thousand years to ancient China. It is mentioned in the Hanshu (汉书), a book about the history of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). In the chapter titled Xiyu chuan zan (西域传赞), the dance is recorded as one of the performances that was used at the time to entertain foreign diplomats visiting the Chinese court. The grand performance involved numerous people holding up a prop created in the likeness of a mythical beast known as the sheli zhi shou (舍利之兽), which is believed to be auspicious. The performers mimicked the actions of this beast playing in a courtyard before it transforms into a gigantic flounder in a pond, and finally an eight-foot-long dragon. The performance was known as yu long manyan (鱼龙曼延) and served as a common form of entertainment in the Chinese courts from the Han to Tang dynasties.1
In another ancient Chinese text, Chunqiu fan lu (春秋繁露), a less elaborate form of the dragon dance is described as a folk dance common in various parts of China and often performed as a ritual to invoke rain in drought-stricken provinces.2
Symbolism of the dragon
The dragon dance is closely associated with the Chinese tradition of worshipping dragons. The dragon is considered to be one of the most auspicious creatures in Chinese culture, along with the phoenix, kylin (a mythical creature in Chinese folklore that has horns on jts head and scales on its body) and tortoise. Chinese dragons are believed to have control over water, rain, hurricanes and floods. They also represent power, strength and good luck.3 The Chinese believe that performing the dragon dance during festivals and celebrations drives away evil spirits and ushers in good luck and blessings for the community.4
Constructing the dragon prop
The dragon prop used for the dance varies in length, and typically ranges between 14 m to 54 m.5 It comprises three main segments: the head, body and tail.6 The dragon’s body is usually divided into sections of odd numbers of 9, 11 and 13, but can go up to as many as 29.7 By connecting these sections, the body of the dragon becomes flexible enough to twist and turn during a performance. The dragon head is commonly depicted with glaring eyes, an open jaw with a long, red pointed tongue, horns on its head and a white beard along the fringe of its chin.8 In Singapore, a dragon 136.8 m in length and consisting of 49 sections was created by the Singapore Dragon and Lion Athletics Association in 1988. It entered the Guinness World Records as the world’s longest dragon prop.9
The dragon prop can be made from different types of materials and is named according to the main material used in its construction. It can be made from cloth, paper or bamboo, and referred to as a bulong (布龙), zhilong (纸龙) or zhulong (竹龙) respectively. If the dragon prop can be lit up from the inside like a lantern, it is known as a longdeng (龙灯), or “dragon lantern”.10 Materials used in constructing the dragon prop have changed with technological advancements. The longdeng is now coated with fluorescent paint and lit up with light bulbs instead of candles for a more striking look.11
The structure of the dragon prop is first formed using either bamboo or wood to shape it. This is followed by gluing either cloth or paper over the dragon’s head, body and tail, connecting the separate parts to form the whole dragon. The prop is then painted, with the final, most important part of this process – the dotting of the dragon’s eyes, which is believed to introduce the dragon’s soul – left in the hands of the most respected person in the community. Finally, bamboo poles are attached below the head, body and tail segments, which the performers carry in order to animate the dragon.12
Dragon dance performers are usually martial artists or acrobats who are able to move their bodies rhythmically and synchronise their steps so that the dragon appears to move gracefully. Although comprising predominantly men, dragon dance troupes may also have female members.13
There are more than 20 basic stances in the dance, and a performer typically takes about half a year to master them and another one or two years before being ready to perform. Throughout the training, the performer has to build up his or her strength and stamina with martial arts training in order to be strong enough to carry the dragon throughout the entire performance. Coordination between the dancers and the musicians is also key to the performance, as the various movements of the dragon are marked by specific kinds of drum and gong rhythms.14
When the performance starts, a man holding a long pole with a longzhu (龙珠, or “dragon pearl”) affixed to the top stands in front of the dragon’s head. He swings the dragon pearl from side to side, while moving in tune to the sounds of the dragon drums (龙鼓; longgu) and accompanying music. The dragon, held by its many bearers, chases the pearl and attempts to capture it, but is never successful. And so the dance continues, with the dragon pearl teasing the dragon and the dragon showing off its antics while trying to catch it. Sometimes, the performance includes two to three dragons all chasing the same dragon pearl. As the dragon pearl eludes the dragons each time, the dance gets more complicated and impressive as the dragons appear to intertwine but are never entangled. Most performances last about half an hour, with a break given every 10 minutes or so for the performers to rest.15
There are different forms of dragon dances – such as the dragon lantern, dragon head, hemp dragon, grass dragon, bench dragon, lotus dragon and luminous dragon dances.16
History of dragon dance in Singapore
The dragon dance is believed to have been brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. In 1927, a major milestone was reached in the development of dragon dance in Singapore when the Fuzhou Woodwork Association (福州木帮工会; Fuzhou mubang gonghui) imported a silk dragon from Fuzhou, Fujian province, China. The association subsequently formed a dragon dance team that followed the Fuzhou folk tradition of the dance form, which soon became popular among the local Chinese.17
The style of dragon dance from northern China used to be common in Singapore as well. Unlike the Fuzhou style, the dragon prop used in the northern style has an enormous head and a wide mouth with a small body. Its body is hollow without a “bone” structure and this requires performers to sustain the spiral movements in order to inflate the body with air continuously. These movements are very taxing for performers as they need to maintain the speed of the dance throughout. Practitioners of this style therefore require special training to develop more strength as well as large outdoor spaces to perform. The gruelling nature of this style makes it challenging to perform in Singapore’s hot climate, and has gradually faded as a practice.18
The luminous dragon (夜光龙; yeguang long) – painted in fluorescent paint and performed under ultraviolet light – debuted at Singapore’s inaugural national pugilistic competition in May 1967 and is believed to be the first in the world. Created and performed by the Nanyang Shaolin Movement Centre (南洋少林国术总会; Nanyang shaolin guoshu zonghui), the luminous dragon has since gained popularity locally, with various luminous dragon dance competitions held in Singapore.19
In Singapore, the dragon dance is often a part of Chinese New Year festivities20 such as the annual Chingay festival,21 and is sometimes performed during opening ceremonies22 or other special events.23
Besides entertainment purposes, the dragon dance may also be performed as a part of religious celebrations.24 For example, the fire dragon dance is performed by the Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee Temple once every few years during special religious occasions. The dragon’s body is made of straws so that devotees can insert lighted incense sticks into its body. The entire dragon, which is typically between 35 to 70 m long and weighs around 160 kg, is burnt at the end of the ceremony.25
1. Pang Jin 庞烬, Lóng de xísú龙的习俗 [Dragon custom] (Tai bei 台北: Wen jin chu ban she 文津出版社, 1990), 121–123. (Call no. Chinese R 390.00951 PJ-[CUS])
2. Yu Xin Yan 余心言, Lóng: Rènshí zhōnghuá lóng de wénhuà龙: 认识中华龙的文化 [Dragon: Learn about the culture of Chinese dragon] (Xiang gang 香港: Qin+yuan chu ban she 勤+缘出版社, 1997), 160. (Call no. Chinese R 390.009551 YXY-[CUS])
3. Zhang Yue 张跃, et al., Chunjie春节 [Spring Festival] (Hefei shi 合肥市: Anhui renmin chubanshe 安徽人民出版社, 2014), 103 (Call no. Chinese R 394.26951 ZY-[CUS]); Teo Han Wue, “The Magnificent Dragon in Dance,” Straits Times, 5 August 1982, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Gregory Leong, Festivals of Malaysia (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications (M), 1992), 19. (Call no. RSEA q394.269595 LEO-[CUS])
5. “Popular Festival Customs among the Chinese,” Straits Times, 31 October 1994, 18; Lim Kim Guan, “The Dance Tradition,” Singapore Free Press, 21 January 1960, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Yu, Rènshí zhōnghuá lóng de wénhuà, 160.
7. Zhang, Chunjie, 105.
8. Lim, “The Dance Tradition.”
9. 世界最长的七彩夜光龙 在莱佛士城显龙威放光彩 [The longest colorful luminous dragon in the world shines in Raffles City], Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报 , 23 (From NewspaperSG); “History of Singapore Dragon Dance,” Singapore Wushu Dragon and Lion Dance Federation, last retrieved 22 August 2013; Tan Ee Sze, “Busy Time for Dragon Dance Troupes,” Straits Times, 7 February 1988, 12; “Dragon Treat for Shoppers,” Straits Times, 20 August 1990, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Pang, Lóng de xísú, 123.
11. Chong Wing Hong, “From Masquerade to Show of Skills,” Straits Times, 16 November 1988, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Zhang, Chunjie, 105.
13. Chong, “Masquerade to Show of Skills”; Theresa Tan and Irwin Yeo, “Battle for the Lion’s Share,” Straits Times, 17 February 2007, 26; “Enter the Dragon,” Straits Times, 29 September 1983, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Chong, “Masquerade to Show of Skills.”
15. Zhang, Chunjie, 105–106; Tan, “Busy Time for Dragon Dance Troupes.”
16. “Dragon Dance,” Singapore Wushu Dragon & Lion Dance Federation, 2013.
17. Singapore Wushu Dragon and Lion Dance Federation, “History of Singapore Dragon Dance”; “Masquerade to Show of Skills.”
18. Singapore Wushu Dragon and Lion Dance Federation, “History of Singapore Dragon Dance.”
19. Yun zhong he 云中鹤, 龙狮‘夜光龙’ 最受欢迎 [Cloud crane], Lianhe Wanbao联合晚报 , 22 September 1984, 23 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Wushu Dragon and Lion Dance Federation, “History of Singapore Dragon Dance.”
20. Tan Ee Sze, “Busy Time for Dragon Dance Troupes,” Straits Times, 7 February 1988, 12. (From NewspaperSG); Dragon Dance during Chinese New Year, 1980, photograph, G. P. Reichelt Collection, National Archives of Singapore.
21. Dragon Dance Performance by Singapore Dragon and Lion Athletic (星洲龙狮体育会) during Chingay Procession at Bukit Merah Constituency, 20 February 1983, photograph, Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore; Choo Siew Bee, “Chingay Has Come a Long way in Its 19 Years Here,” Straits Times, 23 February 1991, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Big Bash at Marina Square Opening,” Straits Times, 22 January 1988, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Dragon Dance Display at Rochore 1980 Exposition at Rochor Road Opened by Minister for Health Dr Toh Chin Chye, 24 February 1980, photograph, Ministry of Information and The Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore.
24. Ho Sheo Be, “Dragon, Dragon Burning Bright,” Straits Times, 8 January 1994, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Lin Xiaoling 林晓玲, ‘火龙’劲舞一小时 ["Fire Dragon" dance for an hour], Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报, 10 March 2008, 8; ‘火龙’ [‘Fire dragon’], Lianhe Wanbao联合晚报, 8 December 1991, 6; Weng Yanming 翁彦明, 沈氏通道 50米长火龙庆土地公宝诞 [Shen's passage 50-meter-long fire dragon celebrates the birthday of the earth goddess], Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报, 10 March 2008, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 22 January 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.