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Dragon Drags the World In

Antoaneta Becker

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LONDON, Jan 20, 2012 (IPS) - Chinese fengshui masters have been busy advising edgy followers how to optimise their luck in the auspicious but volatile Year of the Dragon, which according to the lunar calendar begins on Jan.23. In the West though, Chinese superstitions about the precarious nature of Dragon years don’t hold court, and 2012 will arguably mark the largest by far Chinese New Year celebrations in many world capitals and major cities.

Lavish celebrations in London, Liverpool, Hawaii and Vancouver follow long and well established traditions set by large Chinese communities. In recent years though, in a slight nod to China’s rise and its omnipresent clout, the festivities marking the beginning of Chinese New Year are spreading beyond local Chinese communities and becoming hip events to draw diverse crowds.

"Celebrations in London have certainly grown and now claim to be the largest celebrations outside Asia," says Theresa Booth, director of the London Chopsticks Club, which promotes cultural exchanges between Britain and China. "The celebrations are listed as a special event on the Visit London website, which suggests they see it as a way of tapping into the ever growing interest in China and attracting more tourists to London."

Five years ago celebrations in London featured only a dragon dance around London's Chinatown, a concert in Leicester Square and the restaurants doing a roaring trade, Booth recalls. In 2012 there are performances in Trafalgar Square to cater for increasing numbers of people attending, fully supported by the Mayor's office and a speech by the Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Red lanterns are appearing on Regent Street and Oxford Street – London’s leading luxury shopping destinations. Waterstones – the upmarket British book retailer, now features a Chinese new year selection of books for its discerning customers. Some cities like Bristol are hoping to have Chinese markets emulate the success of Christmas markets in offering a mix of Chinese delicacies and arts and crafts.

Part of the allure of Chinese New Year celebrations in 2012 stems from the association with the Dragon – the only fictional animal in the Chinese zodiac. In the Middle Kingdom the Dragon is revered as the mythical ancestor of ancient Chinese people and often seen as a symbol of China itself.

It is little surprise then that China Post’s decision to issue a special edition stamp commemorating the Year of the Dragon, which depicts the iconic Dragon as a fearsome creature, has drawn fire at home for "scaring" the world.

Stamp designer Chen Shaohua has been attacked for depicting the Chinese dragon as a fang-baring, paw- brandishing creature sending a belligerent message to China’s neighbours and rivals.

The artist, who also designed the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games emblem, has defended his work saying the authoritative image of the dragon was meant to demonstrate a confident and rising China. On his personal blog Chen said that unlike the two previous Dragon years – 1988 when China was in the midst of painful economic reform and 2000 when the country was making still tentative steps on the world stage, China of 2012 is in an entirely different situation.

"As one of the most influential major states in the world, China is rebuilding its national confidence," he wrote.

But Chen’s bellicose rendition of the dragon as an emblem of 21st century modern China has stirred emotions. Writer Zhang Yihe noted on her popular micro blog she was "scared to death" of the beast while another netizen sarcastically suggested that the dragon stamp should be used as the "foreign ministry’s mascot".

Many of the critical tweets and micro blogs seem to dwell on the dragon’s history as a representation of Chinese imperial power (emperors used golden insignias of it to signal their authority) while others worry about cultural misunderstanding in the West.

The dragon has long roots in Chinese culture where it is held in high esteem for its power for good. Unlike traditional Western beliefs that it is a ferocious creature bent on destruction, in China it is revered as a source of well-being for the people.

But views in the West have changed too.

Celebrations of the Chinese New Year of the Dragon with their "sentiments of enjoying peace, good luck and good fortune" are the ones people in the West are searching for in these unsettled times of austerity," according to Dianne Francombe, vice-chair of the Bristol-China partnership, an association which works to link British and Chinese communities in the twinned cities of Bristol and Guangzhou.

"The imperial dragon symbolises strength, solidity and magnificence," she says, at a time when "the skies are grey and the news headlines are so gloomy."

The Chinese Ministry of Culture seems to have seized on the mood. At a press conference on Jan. 10 it announced an ever bigger campaign to celebrate the Chinese New Year overseas and use it as a springboard to promote China’s traditional values.

The campaign, titled "Happy New Year", was first launched in 2010 capitalising on rising global interest in China. This year it will feature some 300 activities in more than 80 countries around the world – the largest in scope by far, reaching destinations in Africa in addition to Europe and America.

Renowned pianist Lang Lang and one of China’s most famous TV anchor women Yang Lan have been chosen as cultural ambassadors for the Happy New Year event. (END)