In 2015 I was hired to choreograph and coach a nine section Golden Dragon which appeared in the Elixir of Life episode of Hell on Wheels.
Hell on Wheels is an American Western television series about the the first US Transcontinental Railroad Line, constructed between 1863 and 1869. Having a dragon in the episode was plausible, given there was a Golden dragon in the US, imported from China by the Chinese community in Marysville, California in the mid 1800s. It was the first, and at that time the only one, in the USA.
How would the Chinese dragon have been viewed at the time? With the same amusement as the old West characters viewed it in Hell On Wheels?
By the late 1880s, in which this episode of Hell on Wheels is set, Chinese immigrants were viewed with suspicion, not only as inferior but even a threat to American and western culture. Peoples of European backgrounds could not comprehend how or why the Chinese could tolerate such poverty-stricken, crowded conditions, and work so hard for meagre compensation. Some writers at the time speculated that the Chinese possessed some sinister super-human power which allowed them to accept their situation, perhaps the result of their mysterious religion, or their strange and isolated culture. “Yellow Peril” novels became popular in which Chinese characters were portrayed as outwardly quiet and submissive but inwardly sinister and cunning–stories fueled by a theory in the late 1800’s that East Asian peoples were a mortal danger to the rest of the world. A number of these Yellow Peril novels predicted that Chinese immigrants were part of a secret plan to invade and take over the government of the United States, replacing American culture with Chinese. These novels played on the worst racist fears of 19th century Americans.
During the mid and late 1800s Chinese American residents were violently driven out of a number of California Northwestern towns.
Early on in China’s encounter with the West many did recognize that the Western dragon and the Chinese dragon are radically distinct creatures. Many however did not. They erroneously attributed the negative associations and characteristics of the Western dragon to the Chinese dragon.
In 1838 George Lay, a British naturalist, missionary and diplomat living in China, had this to say after viewing the dragon dance in a Chinese procession:
“ . . . the pleasure of contemplating such processions is strongly marred by the thought, that the choicest gifts of Providence, the graces of human life, and the refinements of art, are made to move in procession to the honour of the Devil: for there he was under the semblance of a huge dragon, “the old serpent,” just as he appeared to our first parents (Adam and Eve) . . . ”
China’s defeat in the Opium War in 1840 challenged China’s culture and begin an identity crisis, one which continues even today and fuels a question on the minds of many Chinese and Westerners: what is modern China’s identity?
Today China is integrating into the world economy with tremendous speed. Its citizens queue in vast numbers to purchase the latest European and American products and fashions. Its factories manufacture goods for worldwide distribution on an unprecedented scale, making it also the world’s largest exporter. These globalization pressures have inspired China’s desire to re-imagine its cultural identity, one which is harmonious with the modern world. What part will its 5000 year old history and collective memory play? Does China need to customize its culture to make it compatible with Western modernism or make it more attractive to Westerners?
A recent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art explored the impact of Chinese cultural imagery, costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, on Western fashion.
From the earliest period of European contact with China in the sixteenth century, the West has been enchanted with Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions and transforming these into objects representing the fashionable, and contemporary. Interestingly even the most traditional Chinese imagery and aesthetic do not look out of place in the contemporary post-modern world.
In 2004 Nike ran a TV ad titled “Chamber of Fear”, which featured National Basketball Association star LeBron James dribbling a ball while defeating a series of powerful Chinese adversaries, with the final and most powerful, a pair of Chinese dragons. The ad mimicked a computer-game and was designed to encourage Asian youth to confront life’s challenges and get physically active.
In spite of the fact that many video games featuring dragons as opponents were already being sold in China and none were singled out as offensive, a significant number of Chinese nationals reacted angrily to the Nike ad. “All the Chinese in the advertisement were defeated, including the dragon. This suggests China is incapable,” a typical angry post read on China’s largest internet message board, Xinhua.net. Many of the comments appeared to reference China’s humiliation at the hands of Western and Japanese imperial powers during the 19th Century. Reacting to the outcry, SARFT, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, banned the Nike commercial, claiming the ‘dragon-insulting ad’ was ‘blasphemous’.
However, when the 2008 Beijing Olympic mascots were announced, the dragon was shunned. The revelation triggered a debate, culminating with a Shanghai University academic suggesting that China should abandon the dragon as a national icon, a view which exacerbated the debate over the dragon’s place on the modern global stage. Understandably, the professor’s rationale was linked to the observation that the West considered the Chinese and Western dragon synonymous, both evil and aggressive.
The West has largely misunderstood the dragon, and even the Chinese government rejected it for most of the 20th century in its attempt to distance itself from traditional culture. Yet the Chinese dragon tenaciously and universally continues to be loved by the Chinese people, who proudly continue to call themselves, “‘Descendants of the Dragon”.
Recently American born Chinese pop star Wong Leehom performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles’ premier cultural institution, and elicited euphoric cheering from the mostly ethic Chinese crowd with his opening song, “Descendants of the Dragon’. The song, written by Taiwanese singer/songwriter Hou Dejian (候德建) in late 1970s, became a hit in China as well. Since Wong Leehom’s release of the hip-hop version of the song in 2000, he has made it his standard at concerts world wide.
The growing proliferation of the Chinese dragon at public festivals globally, its appearances at internationally important occasions, and its relevance to contemporary fashion, should allay China’s fears that the dragon has lost its 5000 year old charm. If anything, the wildly successful and loved exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrates the West’s enthusiastic embrace of Chinese culture and demonstrates that the Chinese dragon is respected and loved by modern Oriental and Occidental cultures.
Human beings are able to produce culture because of our unique ability to symbolize. A human community is defined by its culture–and one could argue that culture is it’s defining attribute. To an outsider, someone who does not belong to the community, its cultural symbols, practices and customs may be completely unfamiliar and incomprehensible. China’s dragon is a case in point and particularly unique, in that it is also one of China’s oldest and its most influential icons.