Feb. 1, 1963: Dragon, manipulated by 40 men, takes part in Chinese New Year parade for the Year of the Rabbit in New Chinatown.
Feb. 1, 1963: Dragon, manipulated by 40 men, takes part in Chinese New Year parade for the Year of the Rabbit in New Chinatown.



The Spring Festival (or “Chinese New Year”) is now upon us. The most important holiday of the Chinese social calendar, this time of year is also significant for students of martial arts studies. It is a busy time for Lion, Qilin and Dragon Dance associations, as well as the martial arts schools and community groups that sponsor them. Indeed, it is a time of the year when martial skills and values are on public display. They can be seen in the various sorts of street processions that have long been part of life in Chinese communities as well as in smaller martial arts and dance exhibitions celebrating the season.

In some cases the sheer number of individuals and groups taking part in these displays also leads to social tension and the memory of past community conflict. Stories of never quite forgotten fights seem to be most commonly associated with Lion Dance companies in large urban centers like Hong Kong or New York. Still, as the discussion in today’s post makes clear, such tensions play an important part in a wide range of traditional rituals designed to celebrate the lunar New Year.

Why this should be is something of a paradox. The Spring Festival is widely seen as a time from setting aside community conflicts and getting a fresh start. Such values are not only verbally taught, they are reinforced through ritual means. Why then do martial values play such a prominent role in these displays? And what does this suggest both about the nature of community life and the role of the martial arts in the selective suppression or expression of conflict?

To help us delve into these questions we will be taking a look at a paper titled “Dragon Dance in Tu Village: Social Cohesion and Symbolic Warfare” by Tu Chuna-fei, Thomas Green, Zheng Guo-hua and Feng Qiang. This article was published in the Ido Movement for Culture. Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology, 2013, Vol. 13 Issue 1.

The authors of this article begin by noting that while many martial arts, rituals and practices from the past have been preserved as part of the quest to safeguard China’s “intangible cultural heritage,” the actual activities themselves have almost always been divorced from the social context that gave rise to their creation. Further, these diverse practices have been re-imagined as “traditional” sports. Obviously this is a conceptual category that did not exist when such activities were being practiced by their original communities, and it further deemphasizes the original social context of such practices.

In an attempt to recover the lost social context of one Spring Festival celebration the authors of this paper conducted a number of interviews with individuals in the Tu Village area who were old enough to remember the original festival processions for which the town developed a regional reputation. Each of these individuals had been associated in some way with the local power structure (organized through the clan associations) in the area prior to the Communist takeover in 1949.

It was during the post-1950 era that the practice of the Tu Village Dragon Dance (like so many other traditional arts) first lapsed. Thus the reconstruction of the organization of this festival allows these scholars to tell us something about the execution and social function of a Dragon Dance. Their investigation also reveals details about the local power structure that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Lastly, this article also helps us to understand how traditional “martial values” can erase certain conflicts within a community while still acknowledging, or even exacerbating, others. After considering this case we can begin to make our own arguments as to why martial displays have been such an important part of festival displays.

Dragon dance at a public festival in San Francisco.  1965.  Source: UPI press photo.
Dragon dance at a public festival in San Francisco. 1965. Source: UPI press photo.

The Tu Village Dragon Dance

Durkheim famously argued that the sacred is, at heart, social. The rituals of traditional Chinese society, in which cycles of sacrifice unite families, lineages, clans, villages and even regions seems almost designed to illustrate his point. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Tu Village Dragon Dance.

In the 1930s and 1940s Tu Village (Nanchang County, Jiangxi Province) was a primarily agricultural rice producing area (the local economy has since diversified). The village itself was part of a regional economic network of other farming hamlets. In some cases it was on friendly terms with these settlements. Yet it engaged in fierce competition with its close neighbor, Deng Village, with which it shared a common water source. Obviously water is a critical element of rice farming and resource driven conflict between villages was a common feature of this era. Nor were such tensions always kept at bay. The historical record is littered with examples of similar tensions that suddenly escalated into real aggression.

This was not the only potential source of potential conflict in the region. Tu Village itself was structured as a typical “single surname” settlement. Yet upon closer inspection things were actually much more complicated. As one of the larger settlements in the region, it was also somewhat similar to a “temple village.” A large temple, complete with its own extensive landholdings and tenant/guardian families, was located within the village boundaries.

In actual fact there were three major surname groups within the village. These were Tu, Bao and Li. Both the Tu and Bao families maintained their own ancestral clan temples. Yet village residents, pointing to “ancient traditions,” noted that important ancestors of both the Tu and Bao families had intermarried. The situation with the Li group was similar, if a bit later. Thus the three surnames constituted a single “extended family” which was administered on a day to day basis by a group of clan elders, representing the more senior families in the village.

To better understand how a unifying identity within Tu Village was created (as well as how their conflict with the neighboring Deng Village was reinforced) it is necessary to turn to the local communal celebration rituals of the Spring Festival. Prof. Green and the other authors of the article discuss this in some detail. For our purposes we will simply touch on a few of the most relevant factors.

One of the larger and more prosperous local towns, the celebrations of Tu Village were remembered as being especially spirited and notable. The town even managed to draw in additional outside visitors eager to take in the celebration.

The heart of the event was a multi-day Dragon Dance procession which visited, in turn, the local temples (both of the gods and clans), the homes of notable residents, outlaying settlements with which Tu Village was on friendly terms, and lastly, the shared lake near Deng Village. This last stop represented the boundary of Tu’s economic and political influence. There the procession took on a more menacing character.

One of the reasons why festivals are of interest to students of Chinese martial studies is that such processions are often led by local martial arts schools or their various community associations. Avron Boretz has noted that there are very good ritual reasons that unmarried young men, who have little social status in a traditional Chinese community, are called upon to embody martial values in these celebrations. Further, this opportunity for community involvement under the guise of an alternate value structure can be an important engine for self-creation among marginal males. Boretz has also noted, somewhat ironically, that on the whole this usually tends to reinforce, rather than fundamentally challenge, the core values of the community. Thus individuals who might otherwise become alienated are tasked with reinforcing social order.

In the major case of his ethnographic research Boretz was looking at the martial and religious performances of relatively small temple associations embedded within larger, modern, urban communities. While the basic principles that he articulated are evident in this case as well, the details of the festival’s organization are quite different.

Put simply, the Tu Village Dragon Dance was an immense affair. Rather than being something that a single voluntary association might host, it required the active participation of practically the entire adult male population of the village.

The procession itself included a number of features.  The most important was a large wicker and paper dragon-lantern comprised on nine articulated sections and an ornate head. This was carried by a rotating group of middle aged, married, dancers drawn from each of the three surname households.

Next there were three palanquins that held the images of the gods normally housed in the village temple. The Dragon Dance was actually performed as a “sacrifice” to the gods who followed it along the route. These statutes were born by young unmarried (and relatively low status) men drawn from each of the three families.

In addition there were larger groups of male reserve dancers who could switch out when members of either group became exhausted. Readers should recall that the festival was a multi-day affair. There would also have been musicians, organizers and even a team of gunners who were responsible for firing the antique cannon that led the procession and announced its arrival the various stops.

Green points out that women, older men and children were also involved in the procession. In functional terms they were more than simply the audience. It was they who witnessed and bore testament to each element of the carefully scripted social drama which the procession played out.

The administration and management of the festival was also a complicated undertaking. It monopolized the attention of the town’s elite residents, albeit in a slightly different way. The festival itself was funded through the rents of the local temple’s generous land holdings. As such, actually financing the event was rarely an issue. The clan elders oversaw and managed all of the financial aspects of the performance. Green et. al. noted that the local elite were so highly involved in this particular event that it took on the trappings of an “official” event.

Nevertheless, the elders did not run the performance of the festival. The actual hosting duties associated with the festivals, as well as certain aesthetic and administrative decisions regarding how the festival would look in a given year, rotated between all of the heads of households for each of the three surnames found in the village.

Following the town’s creation myth, the senior lineage of the Tu family was the first to host the festival. The next year they were followed by the ranking representatives of the Bao and then finally Li groups. After that the task was returned to the second most senior household within the Tu clan before moving on to the other two groups. In this way every household in the village would eventually get an opportunity to act as the Dragon Dance’s host.

Not surprisingly, much prestige was associated with the responsibility to hosting the festival. While the procession itself was payed for by the Temple’s rents, families competed with one another to provide additional gifts, food, or some additional detail of performance to make their turn especially memorable.

There are some interesting dynamics at play in this organizational system. On the one hand the rotating responsibilities for hosting the festival serve to reinforce both the town mythos and clan based power structure. It is no surprise that the Communist party was so eager to do away with such practices.

Yet at the same time this rotation provided a ritualized basis for extending a fair amount of prestige to every household in the village. Further, it allowed newly ascendant families to show off their wealth, effectively converting it to social status, in a way that was socially acceptable to the village as a whole, rather than destabilizing to it.

Green and the other authors of this article repeatedly emphasized the role of gift-giving in this celebration. The Dragon Dance itself was meant to be seen as a gift. On one level it was a gift that was given by the villagers to the local gods who rode in the procession. The dragon was danced in front to the village’s ancestral halls for the benefit of the ancestors. It visited friendly local hamlets as a gift for Tu’s political allies in the region. And of course the Dragon visited the homes and streets of village residents.

A key element of the celebration was the widespread tradition of inviting in-laws to Tu village to also enjoy the display. This village celebration was seen as a gift that every family should extend to their in-laws. In explaining this aspect of the tradition Green et. al. note that the main handicraft industry of the region (the making of rice noodles) was relatively labor intensive. As a result it was common for families to call on their networks of in-laws to pitch in during busy times. Thus the gift giving embodied in the Tu Dragon Dance reinforced economic networks of vital importance that transcended the normal social barriers of household, clan or village.

Still, the story of the Tu Village Dragon Dance is not without a dark side. The creation of any social community is only possible by explicitly defining who lies beyond its boundaries. To whom do these networks of reciprocity not apply? Or following the economic logic of agricultural life, with whom do we compete for resources?

The procession of the dragon through its traditional route can be thought of as a ritualized pilgrimage tracing out and reinforcing the boundaries of the community. It is no mistake that the climactic moment of the final day of the event occurs when the group moves to the local lake (the main water source needed for agriculture) and performs their dance within sight of Deng Village.

This is no gift. Rather it is a taunt and an assertion of “ownership” over a shared resource that Tu village did not totally control. In this gesture the authors of the article see an example of “symbolic warfare.” To them this element of the display is just as critical to understanding its social function as the unifying aspects that came before. They note:

“Victor Turner characterizes ritual as a “social drama” which consists of three stages: a movement from structure to anti-structure and ultimately a return to structure. At the beginning of the ritual, participants are arranged in strict accordance with their social positions in everyday life so that the ritual conforms to the values and norms of the “structure”. During the peak of the ritual, the social positions of participants gradually disappear; distinctions between them are temporarily eliminated, and they become a community. At the peak of the festival (Lantern Night), “we” (Tu Villagers) confront our traditional enemies (Deng Villagers) via the Dragon Dance. Because the confrontation is merely symbolic, after the festival, participants’ social positions and original roles in everyday life are resumed with peace and order undisturbed. (Green et al. p. 8).”


A Dragon Dance performed by the Ben Kiam Athletic Association in Manila, Philippines, sometime during the 1950s.  Copyright Tambuli Media.
A Dragon Dance performed by the Ben Kiam Athletic Association in Manila, Philippines, sometime during the 1950s. Copyright Tambuli Media.

Why ‘Wu’ is the Transformative Element


This is a strong note on which to end their paper. And Victor Turner’s framework of “social drama” can do much to help us understand exactly what is at stake in the Tu Village Dragon Dance. Yet to actually answer the question that opened this article (why are specifically martial values central to these sorts of celebrations), we will need to push a little deeper.

First, it may be useful to think about the degree to which the Dragon Dance is best understood as an act of “symbolic warfare.” It is easy to see how the display could be taken as a threat. It gathers together the entire fighting age male population of the village. The dancers announce that they would like to get the attention of the residents of Deng village by repeatedly firing a piece of field artillery in their general direction. Finally, this explicitly martial display happens in front of a natural resource that Tu Village would very much like to monopolize. But in the majority of years it seems that the aggressive impulses behind this display were channeled into the dance itself and actual violence was avoided.

We can certainly analyze this event in purely symbolic terms if we would like. Yet before doing so it may be useful to delve just a little deeper into the history of such displays. In point of fact, they did not always remain as non-violent as one might like. Armed conflict and militarized feuding between clans and villages was a very real part of life throughout southern China during the Qing and Republic periods. While such conflicts were present in all of China’s regions, period commentators were clear that they were particularly serious in the south. Further, actual historical accounts confirm that simmering conflicts occasionally escalated to the point of violence following a dance performance or martial arts display by one group in territory that another also claimed.  The provocations involved in this ritual may be more serious than a casual reader might suspect. Nor can we ignore the importance of environmental variables. Behavior that might be ignored in good years would be much more dangerous in periods of drought or regional conflict.

This general pattern is by no means confined to the Dragon Dances of Jianxi Province. It appears to be a common feature of all sorts of processions. Lion and Qilin dancing also attempt to consolidate a community while defining its boundaries.

Historically speaking, outbreaks of violence between Lion Dance troops have been common in places as diverse as Hong Kong and New York City. Even in periods in which actual violence was uncommon, observers (including Anita Slovenz) noted that groups reacted to the meeting of competing performance groups on the street with great anxiety. Entire ritual codes were created to enable two lions to pass each other without incident (or instead to provoke one if the parties so wished). In the cases that Slovenz studied, these conflicts were basically a reflection of more fundamental economic and political struggles on the part of the social organizations who sponsored the various martial arts schools and dance associations in New York.

Thus the situation which we see in Tu Village is not simply an artifact of its geographic setting. Rather, what Green et. al. describe is a specific expression of a much more general pattern. Historically speaking, the possibility of violence was real. This must have colored the attitude with which the various dancers approached their task.

It might also be worth asking whether at the end of this festival the participants returned to their “normal place” in the social order, and life simply went on as before. In a sense we must disagree with this. One of the fundamental purposes of the Dragon Dance was to allow the host family to gain (or possibly lose) social status. Likewise the diplomatic and gift-giving elements of the Dragon Dance were designed to build and extend economic networks that were previously weaker or small. One gives a gift with the expectation of incurring a social obligation. Even low status unmarried dancers might compete for an opportunity to help carry the statues of the gods because, while physically exhausting, this increased his family’s reputation within the community.

In short, while the cosmology of the Dragon Dance might emphasize a return to a stable and unchanging social order, many individuals took part in the ritual precisely because they saw in it the possibility of better luck and increased social standing in the upcoming year. To understand the role of explicitly “military” (wu) social values in mediating this dialectic we must return briefly to the work of Victor Turner.

Turner noted that when functioning as a “social drama” ritual consisted of three stages. First a symbolic structure was established. Secondly, there was a movement away from structure toward anti-structure, a radical state where all social distinctions broke down. He referred to this phase as “communitas.” This then was followed by a reintegration back into the “normal” social structure.

It is easy to see how the Tu Village Dragon Dance reinforces the area’s existing social structure. It is payed for and supported by village elites using rents collected from the poorest elements of society. The rotating system of determining the host is designed to reinforce the village’s creation mythos and clan based power structure. Even the roles that dancers could perform were predicated on their marital and social status. Needless to say, no women were allowed to participate in what was explicitly a patriarchal affair. So the initial social structure and the return to that same state are evident in the ritual’s fundamental organization. But where do we see an anti-structure arising? Is there a true moment of communitas within this ritual?

The authors sensibly suggest that this state is invoked at the moment that the dancers enter their “confrontation” with Deng Village. Yet from an outside perspective, this aspect of the performance would seem just as structured as any other. Why might it be experienced differently by the dancers themselves?

This is where the historical reality of community violence becomes critical to our story. Much like Anita Slovenz’s Lion Dancers in the 1980s, no matter how peaceful things have been lately, it would be hard to discount the possibility of actual violence erupting again at some point in the unknown future. This would be especially true when engaged in what all parties agreed was an intentionally provocative set of acts.

The looming shadow of conflict is the key. While ritual may reinforce the nuances of social order, actual community violence is rather indiscriminate in the instant that it strikes. In that moment, when the entire male population of Tu Village lines up on the border of Deng Village and fires off their cannon, they are stepping away from the normal social conditions that define one’s fate in life. As a group they are moving into a different realm. It is a realm where any two men may be called upon to fight side by side, and any one of them may fall to injury. In this case it is the visceral possibility of violence that makes communitas real.

It is also the key to understanding the transformative power of these rites. Indeed, in Chinese culture role of Wen (or “civil values”) has traditionally been to judge and decide. Yet Wu (or “military values”) have always been seen as the means by which change is actually brought about.

In his critical examination of Republic era wuxia (swordman) novel Petrius Liu noted that often these stories centered on a conflict of values between the hierarchically organized principal of “all under heaven” (which was embodied in the Confucian social and political structure) and the idea of “between people.” The later idea was a more horizontal mode of social organization (characteristic of the literary realm of “Rivers and Lakes”) based on the idea of radical brotherhood and social values.

Such stories argue that by enacting these martial heroic values, justice can be restored in the community and change can come about. Returning to the structure of the Dragon Dance, those who provide “heroic” amounts of food and alcohol for the dancers will be remembered in the future. A successful host will go down in popular lore. And in a moment of conflict with the hated Deng Village a landlord and tenant may find themselves finally reconciled through a common purpose.

The changes that are brought about are real, and each is facilitated by an appeal to classical martial values. And when, at the end of the ritual, all of the individuals are reintegrated back into the social structure, local society itself changes. It is allowed to adapt to new social facts, but to do so in a way that reinforces the promise of a deeper, more fundamental, stability.

Why then are martial values central to these celebrations? Annual rites must always balance the competing demands of change and stability. Victor Turner gave us powerful models for understanding how this process can be negotiated within the pattern of community ritual. By embodying a separate set of norms and identities (those associated with the experience of communitas) martial values act as the engines of change within Chinese society. The importance of martial arts studies as a discipline goes well beyond the study of individual combat systems. At its best it can allow us to understand where society has been and where its values might take it next.


If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Lion Dancing, Youth Violence and the Need for Theory in Chinese Martial Studies