Chinese Dragon Image
Credit: Courtesy of Newton Public Schools Newton, Massachussetts
The most important festival in the Chinese calendar is the New Year or Spring Festival. One of the annual events used to commemorate the festival is a colorful parade complete with animated dragon and lion figures. These fantastic creatures manipulated by expert dancers move through city streets and in and out of businesses during the festivities. Expert dancers animate a large, undulating cloth dragon and prancing lions that make their way through the flurry of excited spectators. Frequent bursts of firecrackers are heard along the parade route.
In the first activity the student will learn the major differences between Eastern and Western dragons and discover why Eastern dragons are associated with Chinese New Year. They will hear a story about how the dragons came to rule major rivers of China. In the second activity, they will also learn about the Chinese New Year Dragon Parade and discover why firecrackers are used to drive off evil spirits, especially one called the Nian.
In the third activity the students will see images of parading dragons, including sound-enhanced video and read poems about the New Year. In the fourth lesson the students will discover that the Chinese lion has imaginary characteristics similar to the dragon. They will view images of the lion and hear about how this highly stylized beast once fought the ferocious Nian. They will learn about the lion dancers in the New Year parade and compare them to the dragon dancers. Finally they will make their own lion masks.
What are the characteristics of the Chinese dragon? Why is the dragon connected with the Chinese New Year? What is the dragon dance? Why are firecrackers ignited during the New Year parade? What do Chinese lions look like and why are they considered protective guardians? Why do lions dance in the New Year parade?
The Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the “Spring Festival”, ushers in a period of family celebration and community festivities and lasts for fifteen days. The date changes from year to year and is determined by the lunar calendar. It falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice somewhere between late January and early February. The celebrations last for fifteen days, although in modern times most families celebrate for only five. It is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar as well as the most joyous. Chinese New Year serves as a celebration of life’s renewal, heralding the coming springtime as a time of reunion for family and friends.
There are many preparations in Chinese households leading up to the New Year that serve to clean the slate of the old year. They also promote fortune and prosperity for the family in the coming year. Pre-new year activities include a thorough cleaning of the house—especially doors and window openings—in order to remove the misfortunes of the previous year. Families take other purifying measures, such as purchasing new clothes, paying off old debts, and burning incense. Along with heralding the birth of a new year, everyone celebrates their communal birthday during this time—although they may also celebrate their individual birthdays during the course of the year as well.
New Years’ Eve traditions are very extensive with many colorful customs to invite prosperity. Tables are laid with many foods to promote an auspicious beginning to the coming year. These include golden circular fruits such as oranges and foods like dumplings (jiaozi) that signify hope of wealth and prosperity. Fish (yu) is served as a symbol of plenty. Sticky rice balls (yuanxiao) are served in sweet soup as symbol of family togetherness and happiness. Flower centerpieces are also used to decorate the house because they symbolize springtime and burgeoning new life.
Red is the favored color. It signifies happiness and is featured in clothing and wall hangings. Chun lian is a special Chinese couplet of good luck characters written in beautiful calligraphy on red paper and hung on the either side of the front door and sometimes across the top of the threshold as well. It is only placed there during the New Year’s festival, and like Christmas decorations it is removed once the holiday is over. The couplet brings an upbeat message of life and hope and better things to come.
The entire family, including children, is encouraged to remain awake though New Year’s Eve, playing games and having fun, feasting, and setting off fireworks. In the morning the children greet their parents and receive red envelopes of lucky money. Then the family goes door to door socializing with relatives and neighbors. During this time, transgressions are forgiven and gifts are exchanged. One must refrain from outbursts or speaking angry words, as the tone of the entire New Year is established during this time. The entire festival is marked by a spirit of joy, peace, and goodwill. The festival officially concludes on the 15th day with the lantern festival.
Though most of the New Year festivities are contained in the family home there are also communal celebrations. In many communities across the country there are communal parades which feature animals that are associated with the New Year: the lion: the dragon and the Nian. These creatures—real as well as mythical—have unique powers and characteristics that position them in the forefront of the festivities. The dragon is highly respected as the most powerful of all; the lion is touted as a symbol of joy and good luck; both are highlighted in the dance pantomimes performed in these parades. The Nian is a fearsome character from Chinese mythology with a frightening visage, which to the delight of the crowds, is frightened away by the lion and the splendid noisemaking instruments.
The New Year parade is a regular event in many communities that celebrate Chinese New Year. It often features a dragon dance as well as a lion dance. A New Year Dragon Parade may open the festivities as well as close the celebrations of the fifteen-day-long festival. It is led by the dragon, an animal revered in China for its magnificence and life-generating powers. The tradition of performing a dragon dance is thought to date back to the first century BCE. The dance was originally a ritual performed during a time of drought by groups of men of various ages to bring rain.
In the early 1900s, the Chinese who immigrated to America began to perform dragon and lion dances in New Year parades to bring good blessings and boost the spirit of the community. In California communities as well as across the United States, these dances have been a favorite spectacle in festival parades since the mid-twentieth century.
In the Chinese tradition, the dragon has a place of very high esteem and differs dramatically from those that appear in Western-world stories and sagas. Unlike its Western counterpart, a symbol of evil, a malevolent force to be vanquished and slain, the Chinese dragon is a benevolent creature exemplifying the life force and signifying good fortune.
In Western legends, dragons serve as an archetypal symbol of the underworld where the hero must confront the dark side of his/her nature. Once the hero slays the dragon—or makes peace with it during his/her underworld trials, the initiation is complete.
The Chinese dragons, however, are paid homage as celestial beings with royal bearing. They are invested with powers of regeneration that permeate the natural world and renew the cosmic order. Through their influence, the seasonal cycles of the natural world are maintained from year to year, or restored, if harmony is disturbed. As noted above, dragons are also known to be guardians of water and are invoked when rain is needed to replenish crops and when the flow of rivers needs to be controlled.
The role of the dragon in the traditional New Years parade is to drive away evil spirits that may be lurking abroad, to dispel negative energy left over from the previous year, and to usher in a year filled with good fortune and supreme happiness.. The dragon-figure costume is designed as a very long body of brilliantly-colored cloth in reds, golds, and greens. One person manipulates the head, and the body down to the tail is supported by many dancers who hold it up and control it’s gyrations with sticks or handles during the parade procession. It is said that once the dragon’s eyes are painted, the creature comes alive! Due the dragon’s size, the dancers are required to have a great deal of discipline and physical stamina. It is no surprise that, traditionally, the dancers were all men and highly trained martial artists though now in some parades women may serve as dancers.
Firecrackers are staples of the New Year celebrations. In ancient times, red bamboo was burned for this purpose. Later, gunpowder was used to fill the red bamboo reeds and exploded to create loud sounds. This noise has an important role at New Year because it dispels bad spirits thought to be especially active during liminal (or borderline) periods of time. Because dragons are believed to hibernate in the winter, firecrackers are also used to keep the dragon “awake”. Noisy firecrackers are an essential accompaniment to the lion, as well, during the New Year parade, creating his fierce roars that fend off the Nian monster.
Lions in the Chinese tradition bear very little resemblance to actual lions. These large cats are not native to China, and the ancient Chinese did not know what they actually looked like—they only learned about them from travelers’ descriptions. Chinese artists used their imaginations to form an image of this creature. In Chinese culture the lion took on mythical proportions and signifies good luck and happiness as well as courage and strength.
In the New Year’s parade the Lion dance is performed by two people In this dance, the lion mimics eating auspicious foods like oranges and red envelopes of lucky money, which the children “feed” him during the dance. The lion also may chase a ball or large “pearl” that represents the sun. There is loud music accompanying the pantomime made by musician using drums and gongs. Firecrackers are also set off during his dance. There is sometimes a mock battle of the lion fighting the Nian monster and vanquishing him. Traditionally the lion dance may also be performed to consecrate the opening of a building and at other civic commemorations.
The Nian is a particularly gruesome monster that according to Chinese myth emerges from its hidden lair under the sea or in the mountains during the New Year festival. As the legend goes, the Nian satisfies its ferocious appetite by devouring crops and consuming people. Once upon a time, a village was being attacked by the Nian, and the people did not know what to do. The village shaman-priest instructed them to build their own lion-monster to fend it off. Because the Nian is believed to be afraid of loud noise and terrified by the color red, the villagers made banging sounds with instruments and dishes and wore red clothing to scare him off.
It is interesting to note that the Mandarin Chinese word for “year” is Nian, and a greeting of “xin nian kuai le” (roughly translated as “Happy New Year”) is exchanged at this time. So, in essence, the performance of the lion dance and the scaring off the Nian are in effect a ritual representation of the passage of time. This custom finds a parallel in the Western noisemaking made at midnight on New Years Eve, which also signifies “out with the old and in with the new.”
Access and become familiar with the EDSITEment-reviewed websites listed in Activities 1-4. EDSITEment-reviewed Asia for Educators provides teachers with elementary-level resources into Chinese Culture and additional background into the lunar New Year rituals and legends.
Download the dragon graphic at Color a Chinese Dragon, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library, and make sufficient copies for your students. Do the same with the graphics of the parade dragon and other Year of the Dragon Colouring Pages available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource ipl2. Gather colored markers and sheets of white paper for a drawing activity. You'll also need brown paper bags (one for each student), glue, sequins, and fake fur for making a lion mask. Additional information for teachers about New Year's Eve and Chinese New Year available at the EDSITEment-reviewed website Chinese New Year.
Supplementary materials for teachers can be found at Dragons in Ancient China including images and background on dragons in Chinese architecture, paintings, and culture. This site is available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Dragons as Creatures of Power explores the mythic nature of dragons from different cultures including Asia available through the Field Museum of Natural History's Mythic Creatures's exhibit (along with a Resource guide for Educators.) Background and images of dragons as depicted in cermonial empress Dragon Robe called ch'i-fu, which translates as "festive dress" along with discussion questions provide students a unique view available at the World Myths & Legends website from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Information about the Chinese zodiac symbol for Dragon and other zodiac animal signs is available through the EDSITEment Lesson Plan for K-2 entitled Animals of the Chinese Zodiac.
Introduction to Chinese New Year: What is a Chinese Dragon?
Remind the students that one of the highlights of the Chinese New Year celebrations is a parade. Read them a story that helps explain some of the traditions associated with the parade. These relate to the Lion Dance where the Lion is called upon to defeat the Nian monster.
Ask if there are any questions about the story. Remind the students that the word "nian" means year as well as the monster. Explain that on the eve of the Chinese New Year everyone is so anxious to get rid of the old year to make way for the new that they open all their doors and windows. Now ask who can tell the meaning of "Guo Nian" (Goo oh Nee ahn, celebrate or welcome the (new) year). Tell the students that Chinese people often eat special rice dumplings known as "nian guo" during the New Year celebrations.
The monster, Nian, was not physically described in the story. Ask for volunteers to describe him as they envision him. Hand out paper and markers to each student. Have them draw their personal impressions of what this monster looked like -- the scarier the better.
Dragons and the New Year Parade
Depictions of an authentic Dragon dance in a New Year parade can be found at the following sites. You may want to use them to introduce this lesson.
Since the New Year festival traditionally marks the beginning of the planting season in China, a major character is a dragon, bringer of rain and good luck. It is a huge puppet – the fierce-looking mask of bamboo or paper-maché worn by one man, and the long body of brightly colored cloth carried by the many dancers hidden beneath it. Spectators throw firecrackers at the dragon's feet, not only to frighten away evil spirits but also to keep the dragon awake. (Dragons hibernate during the winter.) Show the students the pictures and video clips of parade dragons and review background information. View images of San Jose's Golden Parade Dragon and share video clip of this Golden dragon glittering in the sun as he chases the Pearl in a festival parade from the China Historical and Cultural Project. Comment upon the bright colors and dragon features. Point out that this dragon is carried aloft by professional dancers.
Now access Chinese Dragon Poetry, available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource ipl2. After everyone enjoys the fireworks video (ask the students to explain why there are fireworks at the parade), have someone read aloud the poem at the top of the page. Then scroll down to the box entitled "Oriental Dragon Poetry." Click on "Happy Chinese New Year" and have a student read it aloud. Do the same with "A Great Big Dragon."
Go to San Francisco's Chinatown available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource ipl2. In the box at the bottom click on "The Parade Dragon." This is a highly detailed photograph of a dragon mask. After looking at it and discussing it, click on to the words below the picture ("click here to see this dragon …") to bring up a Quicktime movie of a dragon parading in San Francisco's Chinatown. (Wait about a minute for the entire video to upload.) Then view it with the students. Make sure everyone hears the firecrackers.
Choose between these activities. 1) Have each student write a short poem about the New Year parade. 2) Have the students color the picture of a parade dragon downloaded from Year of the Dragon Colouring Pages available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource ipl2.
The entire class can work in groups on a large paper dragon. The head is made by painting a large paper bag. The body consists of a long roll of packaging (butcher) paper, which can be decorated with feathers, glitter, and/or markers. When the dragon is complete, have groups of students wear it through the halls of your school, to the accompaniment of drums or cymbals.
Additional Student Reading:
Additional Teacher Resources:
4 class periods