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Donghai Island, off the coast of South China, is home to a small village, called Dongshan Xu. This community is famous for one of its traditions the villagers keep alive since more than 400 years: every year, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, about 60 of them get together and become part of one huge “human dragon” close to 25 meters long. The farmers perform a
remarkable dance, a spectacular show that leaves no visitor untouched. No wonder, it has been recognized very early as one of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage traditions of China.
But this year, things might change. During spring, as the villagers start to prepare for this year’s celebration, it becomes evident that they might not be able to hold up the tradition. There are less and less villagers joining the dance: it used to be 60, or more, but today they hardly come up to 40, maybe even less. In fact, many young people in the village go out to work in the city and seldom come back. In addition, in the olden days, it was an honor to participate in the dance; only the best farmers were allowed to be part of the dragon. But today, the social status of farmers is getting lower, and with it, so is the prestige of being part of human dragon dance.
Quite apart from these fundamental difficulties, there are a few practical dilemmas: for instance, it is time for the old “dragon ball” player Wu Aiping to retire, but his apprentice, who should be the next “dragon ball”, is not qualified enough yet; the “dragon head” Chen Er is going to retire soon as well, but his successor is still at issue: a special competitive casting needs to be organized….and while observing these endeavors, we become witness to the daily lives of these residents and can better understand what the performance of this ritual actually means to them. And we are being led to the question if the tradition will win and the Human Dragon dance will continue to be performed, as it has been for more than 400 years…or if the temptations of modern days will take the upper hand….