Hunan’s dance with the dragon
Local rites offer respect in hopes of a good harvest ahead, Feng Zhiwei reports
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 email@example.com
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.