Hu­nan’s dance with the dragon

Lo­cal rites of­fer re­spect in hopes of a good har­vest ahead, Feng Zhi­wei re­ports

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICA -

As the totem of the na­tion, the dragon is wor­shiped by many Chi­nese — the Hans and other eth­nic peo­ple as well.

The tra­di­tion is es­pe­cially pop­u­lar in the Cen­tral China prov­ince of Hu­nan, whether it is in rit­u­als, en­ter­tain­ment or just daily life.

The im­por­tance of farm­ing in the agri­cul­tural prov­ince helps con­tinue the dragon affin­ity, said Sun Wen­hui, an ex­pert in in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in Hu­nan.

In the south of Dongt­ing Lake and the Yangtze River, suf­fi­cient wa­ter needed for farm­ing is re­garded as a gift from the dragon, the god gov­ern­ing rain­fall, Sun ex­plained.

He added that lo­cals think the dragon is also a su­per­nat­u­ral crea­ture that does not al­ways be­have with good will. That is one ex­pla­na­tion for Hu­nan’s long his­tory of se­vere floods.

But he said “peo­ple never com­plain — the only thing they can do is to please” the dragon.

Nu­mer­ous rit­u­als have been held to pay re­spect and of­fer sac­ri­fices to the awe­some force.

“Dragon wor­ship usu­ally be­gins with rit­u­als dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val — the lu­nar New Year when farm­ers start to plan farm­ing for the year ahead,” Sun said.

“We of­fer sac­ri­fices to the dragon with the aim of hav­ing a good har­vest — pray­ing for ad­e­quate rain­fall and free­dom from dis­as­ters,” Sun added.

The Spring Fes­ti­val rit­ual fea­tures dragon dances and pa­rades usu­ally last­ing 15 days un­til the Lan­tern Fes­ti­val.

It is the most im­por­tant rit­ual and the largest en­ter­tain­ment of the year in Hu­nan. Prepa­ra­tions may be­gin sev­eral weeks be­fore Spring Fes­ti­val as the ap­pa­ra­tus and cos­tumes for the dances and pa­rades are made. Ev­ery de­tail in the process is a rit­ual it­self.

A range of events then fol­low, in­clud­ing a rit­ual on the sec­ond day of the sec­ond month of the lu­nar cal­en­dar to cel­e­brate the “dragon be­gin­ning to raise his head” and dragon boat races on the fifth day of the fifth month.

In ad­di­tion to rou­tine events, lo­cal peo­ple in Hu­nan also have sac­ri­fice rit­u­als when spe­cific needs arise, such as ask­ing for rain when there is

We of­fer sac­ri­fices to the dragon with the aim of hav­ing a good har­vest — pray­ing for ad­e­quate rain­fall and free­dom from dis­as­ters.” SUN WEN­HUI EX­PERT IN IN­TAN­GI­BLE CUL­TURAL HER­ITAGE

a drought, ac­cord­ing to Sun.

The ex­pert said that un­like other re­gions in the na­tion where dragon wor­ship has mostly evolved into en­ter­tain­ment and car­ni­vals, “Hu­nan is still the place that you can find a lot of rit­u­als with their prim­i­tive forms, al­though they are some­times en­ter­tain­ing too”. Straw dragon dance

He cited the straw dragon dance in Yan­ling county, home to the mau­soleum of the Red Em­peror.

The Red Em­peror and his con­tem­po­rary Yel­low Em­peror are con­sid­ered the com­mon an­ces­tors of the Chi­nese peo­ple.

It is said the Red Em­peror’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the na­tion was to teach peo­ple to farm some 5,000 years ago.

The straw dragon dance ac­tu­ally orig­i­nated with an an­cient farm­ing prac­tice. Dur­ing the Red Em­peror’s pe­riod, peo­ple lit straw torches to fend off pests from farm­land ac­cord­ing to his in­struc­tions.

To­day the straw dragon dance is an im­por­tant part of the of­fer­ings to the Red Em­peror held dur­ing the sixth lu­nar month.

In the day­time it is called the “color dragon” be­cause it is wrapped in col­or­ful clothes. Three per­form­ers carry a dragon on a pa­rade through the streets and al­leys and fi­nally ar­rive at the square in front of the mau­soleum where many per­form­ers com­pete.

At night they turn into “fire dragons” be­cause the car­ri­ers set them alight. Peo­ple dance with them un­til the dragons are burned to ash.

Sun also re­called the nine­drag­ons dance in Pingjiang, which was on the first list of China’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage. It could be the most com­pli­cated dragon-wor­ship ac­tiv­ity in the na­tion in­volv­ing the most de­tailed and metic­u­lous pro­ce­dures.

A set of stan­dards gov­erns the open­ing of the al­tar, the ar­range­ment of sac­ri­fices, prayers to the dragon god and the plan­ning of pa­rade routes, as well as re­quir­ing an oath from per­form­ers. The head per­form­ers need to “ac­ti­vate” the dragons by paint­ing on their eye­balls be­fore the rit­ual be­gins.

The dragon is also the totem of the Miao eth­nic peo­ple in western Hu­nan.

Ac­cord­ing to Sun, the dragon is placed along­side the god of light­en­ing and an­ces­tors when the lo­cal Miao of­fer sac­ri­fices.

Be­cause the god of light­en­ing is not al­ways kind to the dragon, lo­cals ask the god to be friend­lier so that the dragon can do his job well. Also car­ni­vals

De­spite the prim­i­tive forms and metic­u­lously de­tailed pro­ce­dures, dragon-re­lated rit­u­als and events are also car­ni­vals for many peo­ple in Hu­nan, said Sun.

In the Xue­feng Moun­tains re­gion of cen­tral western Hu­nan, a 10-day dragon lan­tern fes­ti­val start­ing from Spring Fes­ti­val al­lows the widest par­tic­i­pa­tion from lo­cals.

In the re­gion, al­most ev­ery fam­ily has dragon dancers and ev­ery vil­lage has dragon lan­tern shows.

The in­cense dragon dance in Rucheng county is also a spec­tac­u­lar show.

In the evening of the Lan­tern Fes­ti­val, per­form­ers present the dragon with many in­cense sticks on its body and spec­ta­tors are en­cour­aged to use torches to light them. The dragon will in­evitably catch on fire and per­form­ers will con­tinue their dance un­til the dragon turns into ash.

The plank dragon show in Tanhe town, Cili county is much loved by the lo­cal Tu­jia eth­nic peo­ple.

Also cel­e­brated in the Lan­tern Fes­ti­val, the event fea­tures lanterns put on wooden planks.

When evening comes vil­lagers and their hand-made lan­tern boards meet in the streets of the town, where the planks are con­nected to form a long “dragon”. The dragon pa­rade can be sev­eral hun­dred me­ters long, at­tract­ing tens of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors from Tanhe and neigh­bor­ing ar­eas. Con­tact the writer through zhu­nati@chi­

Danc­ing with in­cense dragons on fire re­quires great skill and courage, al­though per­form­ers some­times wear fire-re­sis­tant ap­parel.

Eth­nic Miaos in Chengbu county use a ‘fly­ing dragon’ that rises as the per­for­mance con­tin­ues.

Ex­quis­ite head of the plank dragon ven­er­ated by the lo­cal Tu­jia eth­nic peo­ple.

As farm­ers per­form a dragon dance in the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Chang­sha, ur­ban res­i­dents of the mod­ern me­trop­o­lis en­joy the spec­tac­u­lar show in its orig­i­nal form.


The ‘fu­ri­ous dragon’ pop­u­lar among the Dong eth­nic peo­ple in Zi­jiang county, is said to be the small­est dragon in China.

In ru­ral Hu­nan, the dragon dance dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val is the year’s most im­por­tant rit­ual and largest en­ter­tain­ment event.

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