The art of the Dragon Dance dates back to a time when dragons roamed ancient China unopposed – during the reign of the Han Dynasty (around 200 B.C. – 200 A.D.). Dragons are typically seen in Chinese culture as being signs of honor, power, fertility, and leadership. Considering the importance of the dragon, China’s culture almost seems to revolve around it; the dragon appears in many ways in Chinese society: as a zodiac sign, in its art, referenced in music, and even on clothes. I have seen a real (as in, with effort put into it) dragon dance performed, but never really understood why the image of the dragon or the illusion of his dance were so important to Chinese customs.
Since American culture has been around about a few thousand years less than Chinese culture, it is hard to compare the dragon dance’s significance to anything that we do in the United States. In a way, the dragon dance could be likened to setting off fireworks. Both actions are typically reserved for national holidays and are meant to have some level of reverence to the nation’s past. Obviously, a fully-choreographed dance routine revolving around the manipulation of a wooden pole in time with up to 25 other people is slightly different from misfiring a bottlerocket into the family’s shrubbery and catching it on fire, but still, the actions themselves hold the majority of the meaning and importance to the nation as a whole.
The dragon is undoubtedly popular in most parts of the world, including the United States. In my research, it almost feels as if the majority of the Chinese dragons I saw were represented in the same bold, exciting, and colorful way. Unlike here in America, dragons in China are not about just looking “cool,” but instead reflect the reverence attributed to the mystical beast.
Perhaps what I mean to say is that sometimes cultural icons are interpreted differently than originally intended. Almost like trying to translate a line of text between languages, the majesty of the dragon cannot truly make the jump to America, or even anywhere else in the world, because it does not have the history or cultural significance. In this way, the dragon signifier is unique to every region of the world because of the way the people interpret the dragon’s purpose, power, and image. While we see Dragon Tales and think, “oh hey, that’s cute, those dragons are helping those children find their way around Dragon Land,” someone in China might wonder why the dragon has stooped so low as to being a child’s babysitter and even more importantly, why hasn’t the dragon devoured those tasty kids yet. Truly, the importance of a cultural icon is determined by the culture observing it.
Errors in cross-cultural communication are not always the reasons for misunderstanding. While an issue as simple as translation can inhibit cross-cultural interactions, I think that the differences in culture provide a much larger roadblock. As I mentioned above, the difference in the way people view any specific cultural icon has a significant impact on the ability of two people to communicate between different regions. The Chinese dragon dance may just be an interesting dance to someone in America, but in China, the dance takes on a whole new meaning; the effect of almost anything culturally-linked relies upon the history of the culture viewing it.