Tan Xiaoming, a farmer in the small city of Changxing in East China's Zhejiang Province, could not hide his joy when he talked last week about his new dance experience in New Zealand.
"I've danced the special dragon dance of Changxing for 20 years and this is the first time I have performed it outside the country," he said. "I was so happy and excited to show off this dragon of my hometown and show off the power of Chinese folk culture."
The occasion was the annual Chinese Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The place where the special folk dragon dance was performed was the Albert Park last Friday night in Auckland, New Zealand where the fourth Chinese New Year Lantern Festival was held.
Jointly sponsored by the New Zealand Asian Foundation and the Auckland municipal government, teams from different Asian countries showed off their talented folk performances.
The dragon dance from Changxing was one of the few Chinese programs chosen.
Tan recalled that he and his team members were so successful that their dragon dance took the lead in the festival, catching the attention of the excited crowd of New Zealanders.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark gladly painted the troupe's dragon eyes at the end of their performance.
At the festival's opening ceremony, Clark said New Zealand very much appreciates the rapid development of China and the great contributions that have been made by contemporary Chinese people.
Such cultural exchanges are significant for the friendship and economic cooperation between the two countries' peoples, she added.
The dragon from Changxing became an instant star. Tan said many local New Zealanders and overseas Chinese queued up to have pictures taken with the troupe members. Many also asked for tourist information about Zhejiang Province.
Even Chi Wenhai, a 70-year-old Changxing folk artist and art director of the dance, said he did not expect his team of farmer dragon dancers to be so popular with the New Zealanders.
The folk art has a history of over 160 years, with each generation passing it on to their younger successors. But Chi said that the traditional folk performance has been on the verge of extinction several times.
The Changxing locals call their dragon baiyelong, which literally means a dragon made of a hundred lotus leaves.
Unlike the numerous virile dragon dances all over China, this one has more of a flavor of the graceful southeastern region of rivers and lakes.
It came from a local legend about a dragon born in a lotus pond.
"That's why it is called baiyelong, unlike other dragon dances," Chi said. The dragon dance represents a dragon in a pretty lotus pond, where lotuses bloom and butterflies fly around it, added Chi.
In the dance, the lotus leaves are sometimes organized into two dragons, who play with a pearl. Sometimes the dragons turn back into lotus leaves, Chi said.
Changxing is at the intersection of East China's Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, with all kinds of local folk culture mixing together.
"That is why baiyelong is a very special folk dance," Chi said. "It blends many forms of art in it, such as local folk customs, magic, opera and dance. The dance has become so attractive and so different from others because all these art forms are combined," said Chi, who has been working on the baiyelong dance for over 30 years.
He said baiyelong was very popular in rural Changxing in the past. The peasants were so fond of it that they made their own dragons and danced in the fields during their short breaks.
However, because of frequent wars in the early 20th century, the local peasants had neither the time nor the inclination for the dance.
It was not until the 1950s that the local farmers again took up the dance.
Unfortunately, during the 10 years of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), they had to put the just awakened baiyelong back to sleep.
Chen Yixiang, director of the Changxing Culture and Sports Bureau, said: "When the 'cultural revolution' was over, the local people did everything they could to restore this old folk tradition with support from the local government."
Groups of experts and artists were sent to the countryside to learn the dance and related information from local farmers. Chi was one of the farmers consulted.
The continuous efforts paid off and the baiyelong dance returned. Chen said there are more than 600 baiyelong dance troupes in Changxing, a city with a population of 620,000.
They have often won top prizes in nationwide folk art contests.
"Baiyelong is a precious folk art of ours. It needs support from everyone in society. We are so happy that we haven't forgotten our culture while we are developing our economy," Chen said.
Chen added that there are many other forms of folk art in Changxing as well as baiyelong.
"They all need our efforts to protect them, as many of them are also facing the danger of extinction," Chen said. "The average age of some of the folk artists is 75 years and they are desperately in need of successors."
The director added: "I have this strong sense of danger all the time, afraid that these beautiful things in our culture will suddenly be lost one day. Our folk culture is beautiful but is lacking in strength."
However, Chen said looking for younger successors is not the only way to preserve traditional culture. "We need to establish some new operating mechanisms," he said.
"We need to blend in new blood with traditional folk art and, in this way, we can help preserve and develop the culture."
Chen said that he and his colleagues are looking for new ways to keep folk art going, such as establishing folk culture schools and seeking cooperation with local business.
Many young people, mostly in rural areas, are also interested in baiyelong. Some local enterprises have organized their own troupes to perform during festivals.
(China Daily February 18, 2003)