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A Miao tradition: A dance to honor the fire dragon

Antlers, the teeth of a tiger, the head of an ox, the eyes of a monkey and the tail of a phoenix – these five fantastical elements make up the "fire dragon." 

This dragon dances wildly in the sparks of a fiery blaze, astonishing even the almighty Gods. Located in Jishou City in central China's Hunan Province, Majing'ao Town is considered the birthplace of this mythical creature. 

Fire dragon dance. / VIDEO

With a history of over 300 years, the fire dragon dance has long been a tradition for the ethnic Miao people. Their ancestors believed the fire dragon to be their holy patron. And on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar year, a dragon dance is held to honor the patron and pray for prosperity. 

This year, Yang Changgui will play one of the most important roles in the dance – the dragon's head. Before him, his father played this role. The fire dragon runs in the family as his oldest brother is also a dragon dancer and another brother is a craftsman and helps make the dragon. 

Fire dragon dance. / CGTN photo

During every holiday season, part of the headman's responsibility is to organize the fire dragon dance, especially for the annual celebration of the Lantern Festival.

When CGTN visited Yang, it was the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. Yang was organizing villagers to help build the dragon. Its frame is made of paper and bamboo canes, and the surface is painted with bright colors. The giant paper dragon is endowed with the powers of those five beasts mentioned above.

The preparation of the "magical fire". /By CGTN

Fire dragon dance. / CGTN photo

The paper-bamboo dragon has to be burned in the "magical fire," which is made up of five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth, in order to show the conquering of the mighty dragon. 

Gunpowder spark is the metal, bamboo is the wood, Chinese liquor is the water, charcoal is the fire, and of course, soil is the earth. The "magical fire" dates back to ancient Chinese mythology.

At nightfall, it's time for the dragon to rise among the sparks.

Fire dragon dance. / CGTN photo

Yang Changgui, the head of the fire dragon dance. /By CGTN

The special gunpowder in the bamboo tubes are lit up. The orange sparks rain onto the dragon, making it dance dramatically with the crackling sound in the mist of gunpowder sparks. The heavier the fire rain, the higher the dancer's spirits. Just as people say, "the dragon enjoys the shower of fire, but the dancers enjoy it more."

A group of joyous men, brawny and topless with oil rubbed all over the body, dance and roar in the rain of sparks, pushing the celebration to a climax in the burst of cheering.

Yang says, "the dragon dance is for worshiping the Gods. It makes us more confident than ever before."

Legend has it that the dancing dragon in western Hunan shows people's passion and courage to the heavens, and brings a good harvest in the new year.