2024 — An Ambitious Dragon’s Nightmare

The Other China



China’s Spring Festival migratory season began on Friday 26 January 2024. Tens of millions of people set off by road, train and airplane to reunite with family members and visit friends to celebrate Lunar New Year, the first day of which is February the 10th. It is expected that during the holiday season — 26 January to 5 March — some nine billion trips will be made within China.

For a video report on the ‘Spring Festival Migration’ 春運 produced by China Central Television, see:

China Heritage marks this occasion and anticipates the 2024-2025 Year of the Dragon 甲辰龍年 by sharing a new song by Namewee (Wee Meng Chee 黄明志, 1983-), a popular Malaysian hiphop artist and lampooner who came to international fame by poking fun at China’s pompous nationalists and their ‘brittle pink hearts’ 玻璃心. See:

As travellers were setting off en masse to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Namewee released ‘The People of the Dragon’, a song and MTV video that is a tongue-in-cheek collab with the ‘Poo Who Works for You’ 小熊為你, aka Xi Jinping.

Following on from Namewee, we reprint material from an essay on China and dragons that first appeared in our series New Sinology Jottings in 2017:


The Year of the Dragon offers a mixed message. It might seem to promise soaring expectations, but for over a century previous years of the dragon have been times of ill-omen. According to China’s sixty-year cyclical calendar, a jiachen Year of the Dragon 甲辰龍年, such as 2024, can be a particularly fraught time, one during which titanic aspirations come crashing to earth. The last jiachen Year of the Dragon was in 1964-1965. At the time Mao Zedong launched the Socialist Education Campaign, warned about counter-revolution backsliding and the threat of corruption in the Party. That campaign turned out to be a prelude to the Cultural Revolution and over a decade of vaunting political ambition and earthbound misery.

Even relatively less malevolent Years of the Dragon, including that of 1988-1989, were greeted at the time with widespread trepidation.


As the multitudes transverse China during the 2024 holiday season, they carry with them not only presents and well-wishes but also news about their personal circumstances, trials and tribulations. Although the voices of this Other China are tirelessly monitored, corralled and censored by Beijing’s official over-culture, when friends and families gather during the festivities they also exchange, often sotto voce, unvarnished truths, some of which unsettle the hubris of the Communist Party’s vaunting dragons.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
26 January 2024


In loving memory of Hupiqiang 虎皮牆 (April 2005-January 2024) and Quan’r 圈兒 (April 2005-February 2022)


Further Reading:

Dragon sculpture at the Light Festival in Yu Garden, Shanghai 上海豫園燈會, January-February 2024

I really don’t know why the Chinese people have chosen this grim, hideous figure of the dragon to symbolise our nation!  In fact, the dragon can only symbolise the hardships of our people!  Whenever anyone mentions ‘Heirs of the Dragon’, my hair stands on end.

Bo Yang 柏楊


龍的傳人 The People Of The Dragon

— a song for the Year of the Dragon



This song for the Year of the Dragon comes from the People of the Dragon.

What an honour! To think that I’ve been invited to Beijing to sing a duet with our beloved Chairman (the Poo Who Works for You) and glorify our 5,000-year-old dragon tradition in the form of a New Year’s song about the descendants of the dragon, be they in China, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong or Taiwan. Together, let’s protect the dignity of the Chinese people!

We all grew up drinking water from the Yellow River and eating Chinese seafood. We must never forget our roots. We must learn to dance ‘Subject Three’ and never forget our ancestors! (For more on ‘Subject Three’, see below. — trans.)

Since all of us are ‘descendants of the dragon’ we are duty-bound to love the Communist Party, love the Fatherland and love our Chairman!

On behalf of The Centre, may people in every sphere of Chinese society accept my warm felicitations!

Long live the Fatherland!



非常榮幸!這一次能夠受邀飛到北京跟我們尊敬的主席(小熊為你)一起合唱這一首弘揚中國 5000年的龍年賀歲歌曲-『龍的傳人』,獻給每一位海內外來自世界各國(包括新加坡,馬來西亞,香港,台灣)的中國人,一起捍衛中國人的尊嚴!



[Note: For a detailed analysis of the lyrics of Namewee’s song and the accompanying MV, see:


Dancing for ‘Subject Three’


Manya Koetse

‘Subject Three’ has become a buzzword on Chinese social media in 2023 in connection with a viral dance, the Subject Three Dance (科目三跳舞). From Douyin to Bilibili, the dance is super popular online and is performed by various people, from online influencers to virtual vloggers. The dance has become especially big since the renowned Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao allowed its staff to perform this viral dance for diners upon request, leading to amusing and occasionally awkward situations. The term ‘Subject Three’ allegedly first gained traction in 2022 or early 2023 following a video showcasing the jubilant atmosphere of a Guangxi wedding. Subsequently, ‘Guangxi Subject Three (广西科目三) became a popular joke. Although traditionally associated with the third part of a driver’s license exam, people playfully suggested that Guangxi locals undergo three significant “exams” in their lifetime: one for singing folk songs, one for mastering the art of slurping rice noodles, and the third for dancing (“广西人一生中会经历三场考试,科目一唱山歌,科目二嗦米粉,科目三跳舞”). By now, the dance has transcended its original context of Guangxi weddings and Haidilao staff dances, as it’s turned into a true social media hype where people create and share videos of themselves and others performing the Subject Three Dance, which is characterized by playful and exaggerated movements accompanied by the background music of “I” (Jianghu Smile), making it entertaining, humorous, and, most of all, meme-worthy.

What’s on Weibo, 31 December 2023


Dragon boats at the Summer Palace, Beijing 北京頤和園, 2000. Photograph by Lois Conner


As the Dragon Raises its Head

Geremie R. Barmé


From Nine Dragons 九龍圖卷 by Chen Rong 陳容 of the Southern Song (early thirteenth century). The Provenance of this work indicates that it was possibly owned by Yixin 奕訢 (Prince Gong 恭親王; 1833-1898), the regent forced from power by the Empress Dowager Cixi during the Tongzhi reign. During his years ‘in the wilderness’ 在野, the Prince spent time in a modest garden at a temple outside Beijing. There he was know as a ‘Hidden Dragon’ 臥龍 (so called because of the ‘recumbent pine tree’ 臥龍松 growing nearby), nurturing his talents and biding his time, waiting to be recalled to Court. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


The Chinese calendar is cluttered with festivals, anniversaries and celebrations of various kinds. Local regions have long marked the changing seasons and customs with holidays or feast days. In the dynastic era, different festivals would flourish in importance or fade into relative, or local, obscurity. In certain epochs country-wide festivities were proclaimed.

Following the collapse of dynastic rule in 1911 and the rise of the Republic of China, traditional holidays jostled with new state-promulgated national days. Under the People’s Republic (1949-), holidays and celebrations have waxed and waned in tandem with the shifting fashions of revolutionary fervour.

For instance, those of a certain generation may well recall the decade when families were forced to enjoy (in moderation) a Revolutionised Spring Festival 革命化春節 or Chairman Mao’s Birthday (conveniently falling on the day after Christmas). Then there was the plethora of commemorations of Party meetings, announcements, rhetorical victories, heroes and martyrs. These were often marked with fireworks, clamorous processions with drums and slogans, as well as song-and-dance performances. For later generations, the mix of old (and many revived) festivities (and extended holidays) with the days on which the Party congratulates itself and its favoured causes (May First; May Fourth; Children’s Day (1 June); August First; October First, etc) is welcome for it means less work and more shopping.

Chinese New Year’s fireworks. Photograph by Lois Conner.




The importance of this moment in the cycle of being can be found in Hexagram I of the Book of Change 易經. This hexagram, Heaven 乾卦, contains Six Dragons: Hidden Dragon, Dragon Seen, Flying Dragon, Dragon Leaping, Overreaching Dragon and Headless Dragon. Each is taken to represent the natural progression of events (agriculture, political or social), phases in the unfolding of an enterprise or, in later times, the  stages of personal enlightenment. The Dragon Raises its Head is signified by the solid or Yang Line in the Second Place in the Hexagram, the Dragon is seen in the fields 見龍在田:

Yang in the Second Place

The Dragon

Is seen in the fields.

Draco in campis.

It profits

To see a Great Man.

Magnum virum.

Yang line in Yin Place. Centered. The fields lie upon the Earth, writes Cheng Yi. Now the Dragon emerges, visible above the Earth, manifesting Inner Strength, influencing others in a  process of universal extension. The Sage Shun cultivated the Earth and caught fish. It Profited him to see a Man of Inner Power, the Sage Yao, in order to implement the Tao.

John Minford, The Book of Change, 2014, p.17ff.

Dragon 龍 in the hand of the Tang-era calligrapher Zhang Xu 張旭, from ‘Four Ancient Poems’ 古詩四貼.

The Chinese dragon, lóng 龍, is a zoological miscegenation. It has the head of a camel, horns of a stag, eyes of a rabbit (or devil) and the ears of cow (or ox). These are joined by the neck of a snake to the belly of a sea-monster. It is covered with the scales of a carp, has the claws of an eagle and the pads of a tiger. Along its back are eighty-one scales. It has whiskers on either side of the mouth, and a beard on its chin, and it carries in its mouth a pearl, the symbol of wisdom. Furthermore, the dragon can change size at will, and in an instant can shrink as small as a silkworm or become so gargantuan that its form fills the skies.

Although the dragon has a venerable history in China — dragon-like creatures, the kuí 夔, festooned ancient bronzes — its rise to the status of imperial emblem was gradual. From the time of the Tang dynasty in the seventh century it was employed by the dynastic house and in the following dynasty (the Song, tenth to thirteenth centuries) it became the crest of the imperial family: a five-clawed dragon was reserved for the use of the emperor and his immediate relatives, a four-clawed creature being a common decoration on the robes of lesser officials.

In the middle of the nineteenth-century, in need of an identifying national symbol as it reluctantly entered the world of international politics, the Manchu-Qing government chose the Dragon Banner. This Yellow Dragon Flag of the Great Qing Empire 大清黃龍旗, as it was called (the background of the flag was imperial yellow, the dragon was an Azure Dragon 青龍/蒼龍), was first hoisted by Chinese diplomatic missions in the West from early 1862, at the start of the Tongzhi reign period.

Thus, something that had been the mark of imperial power became, in the age of the nation-state when the invention of individual national identities were de rigueur, emblematic of China as a country. As the rule of the Qing Dynasty faltered revolutionary patriots set on the overthrow of the imperial house rejected the dragon and its symbolism; it was regarded as being symptomatic of a dated and reactionary tradition.

Remains of dragon-headed water spouts at the ruins of the Marvellous Realm of the Square Gourd 方壺勝境, Garden of Perfect Brightness 圓明園, Beijing. Photograph by Lois Conner.

After the Revolution of 1911, the dragon was abrogated by nationalists as they formulated a new sense of self-identity. Yet, as the century progressed, this ancient icon was gradually reclaimed as a symbol of the nascent nation-building temper of the country. Eschewed as a remnant of the feudal past on Mainland China during the height of Maoism, it has only been since the 1980s that the dragon has been embraced once more as being emblematic of the Chinese-Han people, as well as a commercial icon with a high-recognition factor for tourists. It flourished during the first Year of Tourism of 1988, and while it was promoted by the authorities, some intellectuals criticised it as a symbol of malevolence, violence and backwardness (at the time, the published dialogue between the journalist Dai Qing 戴晴 and the social scientist Yan Jiaqi 嚴家其 on the subject of the dragon was supposed to have offended the party-state elder Deng Xiaoping, whose Zodiac Sign was the Dragon, that it helped seal the fate of The World Economic Herald 世界經濟導報, the popular newspaper that ran the conversation).

In Taiwan, by contrast, the Dragon had resurfaced in the unlikely context of the US government’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and the abandonment of three decades of diplomatic support for the Republic of China. At the time, the campus song-writer Hou Dejian 侯德健 composed ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ 龍的傳人 to express the melancholy mood of the island and a profound frustration with China’s autocratic traditions; then and subsequently the song has generally been misinterpreted as being a paean for the outsized scaly creature and its descendants, the Chinese People.

Hou’s lyrics describe a sense that many people have had of growing up not secure in the reassuring embrace of the dragon, but rather constricted by this snake-like totem and oppressed by its mighty claws:

In the ancient East there is a dragon;
China is its name.
In the ancient East there lives a people,
The dragon’s heirs every one.
Under the mighty claws of this mighty dragon I grew up
And its heir I have become.
Like it or not —
Once and forever, an heir of the dragon.


Hou Dejian’s fellow Taiwanese writer, the acerbic essayist and historian Bo Yang 柏楊, was even more direct:

I really don’t know why the Chinese people have chosen this grim, hideous figure of the dragon to symbolise our nation!  In fact, the dragon can only symbolise the hardships of our people!  Whenever anyone mentions ‘Heirs of the Dragon’, my hair stands on end.

It was a sentiment repeated by the mainland writers of the controversial tele-series River Elegy 河殤 broadcast on CCTV at the height of late-1980s openness which excoriated China’s inward-looking, landlocked culture:

In the garden of the Republican-era Presidential Palace 總統府, Nanjing. Photograph by Lois Conner.

Some say there is an element in Chinese culture that tolerates evil; others say the fatal weaknesses of the Chinese national character are worldly wisdom, fatalism and a docile acceptance of suffering. This is no accident… . Water is the lifeblood of agriculture, and it is the dragon king who rules over water. For this reason, this nation both loves and hates the dragon, worships him and curses him.  It is a complex combination of emotions, as twisted as the form of the dragon itself…

You could say that [the dragon] is the symbol of our nation. But has anyone ever considered why the Chinese adore this terrifying monster?

After defecting to the mainland in the early 1980s, Hou Dejian, now cast not as a forlorn Taiwanese Chinese betrayed by American dreaming but as a patriot, was for a time a darling of the authorities. ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ became something of an unofficial anthem, uniting at least superficially the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. For the Communist authorities it lost some of its lustre when Hou joined the protesters in Tiananmen Square in April-June 1989, and revised the song for the occasion.



The description of the dragon, and the potted history of the dragon as a symbol in China is from my In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The quoted material from Hou Dejian, Bo Yang and River Elegy first appeared in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.153-155.



from The Dragon Raises its Head 龍抬頭China Heritage, 27 February 2017


dá, ‘dragon in flight’
, ‘a dragon taking flight’


Hupiqiang 虎皮牆. Collage by Lois Conner



— 弘一法師