Lion Dance

Rochester Shaolin Training Academy LionOf all the world's cultural festivities, the Lion Dance of China is one of the most spectacular to watch. An exciting combination of theater, music, history and Kung Fu, the lion dance has been a New Years tradition in China for well over a thousand years. Lion dances take place throughout the two-week period of the New Year Festival as the dancers are believed to chase away evil spirits and bring good luck, longevity, happiness and prosperity to the households and businesses they visit. The final grand performance of the lion dance takes place on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, as the New Year celebrations officially culminate with the Lantern Festival. The lion dance may be performed during the year on special occasions such as weddings, parades, birthdays, planting and harvest festivals and the opening of new businesses.

The Dance

The dance is performed by two dancers working closely together as one lion. One dancer carries and activates the head while the other acts as the body or tail. The lion head is constructed of a framework of bamboo and wire covered by brightly painted paper mache. It has a furry mustache and beard, a mirror on its nose and a unicorn-like horn on top of its head. It is heavily decorated with tassels, fringes and bells. Inside of the head, the dancer uses a system of levers and pull-strings which control the action of the lion's expressions by making its eyes open and close, mouth open and shut and ears twist and flap. The dancer in the head must act as a skilled puppeteer, moving in quick, powerful feline motions while working to show a variety of life-like lion emotions such as pride, curiosity, playfulness and anger. Attached to the head with a red ribbon is a long piece of bright, multi-colored cloth under which the second dancer must crouch and move as the body and back legs. The body, actually called the tail, was traditionally made of silk, but today is often made of nylon or mylar. Like the head, it is brightly decorated with hair and small bells. All of this costume and movement have the effect of creating a striking, exotic-looking beast - quite different than lions most people have seen.

The lion dance is accompanied by the rhythms of three instruments - a large drum, cymbals and a gong. Throughout the dance, the musicians play a variety of tempos to match the lion's behaviors and actions. In traditional China, the explosions and smoke of firecrackers thrown at the feet of the lion added to the spectacle.

Types of Lion Dance

There are two basic types of lion dances - freestyle and the set method. The freestyle form is used when dancers parade through a village, visiting homes and stores during the New Year Celebration. The visit, called the "Pai" brings good luck to residents and businesspeople. Those expecting a visit from the lions hang a head of lettuce or bok choy called the chan or "green" above their door. Inside the chan is the "licee," a red envelope which contains money. To get the gift of the licee, lion dancers often have to overcome physical obstacles and solve puzzles. These include athletic feats such as jumping between high poles or climbing the wall of a building.

The set method is performed for a seated crowd. This dance involves a cycle of carefully choreographed sequences which include an opening with three bows, sleeping/dreaming, awakening/grooming and exiting the cave, playing, searching for food/eating and returning to sleep. Throughout the dance, the lion is joined by a "Buddha" or Chinese monk who plays the role of comic, acrobatic clown. Dressed in a pink mask with a large smile, he taunts and teases the lion with a fan or a ball. The lion, depending on its mood may play with the Buddha or chase him, biting and kicking the hapless character. the Buddha also offers the chan, helping the dancers find and "eat" their food. The dramatic climax of the Lion Dance is the Choy Ching or "eating of the green." Upon approaching his food, the lion sniffs his prize then eats it while standing motionless. After a rolling crescendo by the drummer, the lion explodes back into activity spitting out the shredded lettuce onto the watching crowd. This is a symbolic act of blessing by the lion as it signifies that there will be abundance for all in the coming year.

Origins of the Lion Dance

Many different stories exist telling of the origins of the lion dance. They all rely on mythology as none of them is supported with accurate historical records. Although lions are not native to China, they were sent across Asia by caravan on the Silk Road as gifts from kings of the Persian Empire to Chinese Emperors during the Han Dynasty (205 BC - 220 AD). The image of the lion was used in Buddhist blessing ceremonies. Because of the animal's power and courage, even its likeness was believed to have the ability to exorcise demons. Each new year, the palace and noble houses were to be made clean - both physically and spiritually. Men dressed as twelve sacred animals, among them a lion, made three passes through the buildings to drive out all evil that may have resided there the previous year. Centuries old, stone sculptures of these lions still stand today protecting bridges, palaces, temples and noble houses throughout China.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) the lion dance achieved popularity as a favorite ritual for the Emperor and nobility residing at the royal palace. According to legend, An emperor, haunted by recurring nightmares, dreamed one night that a strange looking animal saved his life. Relieved that his nightmares were ended, he described his dream to his ministers, who informed him that the animal resembled a creature from the West remembered as a lion. The Emperor then commanded his ministers to build a beast similar to the one in his dream. This creation, now referred to as the Northern Lion, was actually a suit worn by two men. It had a shaggy yellow coat and mane, while the head or mask had a square snout that resembled a dog. Prancing and jumping, it moved in light, playful motions accompanied by acrobats, dancers, musicians and singers who performed musical pieces called "Tai pin" melody. This popular entertainment for royalty and nobility was carried on for centuries in the Beijing Opera.

Over the years the custom of lion dancing spread from Emperors to the general population and became a vital part of Chinese folk culture. As it diffused throughout the land, the image of the lion began to acquire characteristics of mythical animals such as the dragon and phoenix. The lion dance also became associated with Kung Fu as it was often practiced and performed by Buddhist monks and students of local Kung Fu schools. The dance is very athletic as the proper movement of the lion involves many Kung Fu stances and kicks. In traditional China, the lion was thought of being "the heart and soul" of a Kung Fu school. Schools would have competitions to see who had the most skilled lion dancers. Lions from local schools would compete for money and prestige by performing tricks, negotiating obstacle courses and even fighting.

Symbolism of the Lion Heads

In time, a several popular lion heads came to be associated with characters from the famous literary work Three Kingdoms: A historical Novel. Known as the more popular Southern Lions, they are recognized by the color of their faces and beards and the qualities they represent. A lion with a red face and black beard General Kwan Kung, a military leader known for his righteousness and courage. His older brother, ruler and scholar Liu Pi is portrayed as a yellow lion with a white beard and is known for his bravery, wisdom and kindness. The black faced, black bearded lion is an aggressive young upstart, as was Kwan's younger brother General Chang Fei. Together, the Southern Lions moved with more restrictive, powerful motions than their Northern predecessors. Proper animation of the lion is good physical training for Kung Fu students as it involves working many strong low stances. It builds strength, quickness and endurance - all vital qualities needed in the martial arts.

As with much of the richness of Chinese culture, it diffused to Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Early Chinese immigrants carried it to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines while later travelers carried the custom to Chinese communities in Australia, Canada and the United States.



From a private ritual performed only for the Emperor, the Lion Dance gradually became an essential part of the life of the entire community. It is now performed at Chinese New Year’s festivities, at opening ceremonies for any major event, and whenever new businesses are launched. Because China lacked real lions on which to model the dancer’s costumes, Chinese "lions" evolved into strange-looking creatures with characteristics of dragons and other mythical beasts.

Lion Dancing originated in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). Legend states that the Chinese Emperor had a dream, one night, in which a strange looking animal saved his life. The next morning, the Emperor described the dream to his ministers. One minister told the Emperor that the strange looking animal resembled a creature from the west, a lion.

Lions, however, are not native to China, and their arrival is a result of gift giving. When rulers and emissaries of various kingdoms outside of China wished to trade with the Chinese, they sent lions as gifts to win the favor of the Chinese emperors and thus, earned the right to economic trade.

Today, the Lion Dance symbolizes happiness, luck and prosperity. Lion dancers are also experts in Chinese martial arts. The skills needed for lion dancing include strength, stamina, flexibility, balance, and the ability to visualize and improvise dramatic movements. The heavy lion head requires a dancer with strong shoulders and arms, and the dancer’s footwork incorporates most of the various Kung Fu stances and kicks. The dancer in the back is bent over most of the time, and needs a very strong back and legs. So lion dancing and Kung Fu have been together for centuries. There are two major types of lions - northern and southern (see accompanying photo). The shaggy red and gold northern lion represents youth and playfulness; the larger-headed southern lions include the black and red "General Kwan" lion and the fighting black lion, while the white, yellow and blue southern lions represent the wisdom that comes with maturity.

The costumes themselves are traditional works of art, each worth about $2,000. The large head is made of brightly coloured paper on a framework of wire and bamboo. Inside the head are bamboo levers and pull-cords to allow manipulation of the lion’s eyes, ears and mouth. A long sheet of brightly multicoloured cloth forms the body and tail of the lion.

Each lion is operated by two dancers; one carries the head, the other the body. All routines begin with a bow, followed by preliminary sniffs and shuffles as the lion gradually becomes more alert and active. Finally, the lion, realizing he’s hungry, becomes fully animated as he tries to "get the green," sometimes standing and jumping to reach a hanging head of lettuce; this is the choi chang ceremony (the "lettuce" is frequently filled with "good luck" money).

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