The Lion Dance

January 30, 2022

Lion Dance is a well-known Chinese folk tradition and an important part of a traditional kung fu school. It is an essential part of Chinese festivals/holidays and important functions such as weddings, business openings etc. Often performed by kung fu schools at such events to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune, happiness, and prosperity, that is if it is well performed. Traditional lion dance performances also include the lighting of firecrackers to scare away the evil spirits. Although this is not very common in many western countries due to the legal issues, it is still done in many parts of southeast Asia.

Lion dance displays the spirit of the kung fu school and it is often performed by kung fu practitioners. No traditional kung fu school is considered complete without a lion dance team. Along with the style, lion dance has been passed down from master to student for centuries. 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 performers footwork incorporates most of the various Kung Fu stances and kicks. The person portraying the tail is bent over most of the time and needs a very strong back and legs. Many Hung Gar masters were famous for their lion dance performance. The legendary Wong Fei Hung was extremely well known for his excellent Lion Dance and was referred to as the “King of Lions”. During the long revolutionary resistance against the Ch’ing government the Hung Gar practitioners often used their lion dance to communicate with the other Chinese patriots.


History And Origins

Although no real lions ever existed in China, lion and the tradition of lion dance have existed in Chinese culture and history for thousands of years. Chinese lions bear very little resemblance to the real lion, which, however, plays an important part in Chinese folklore. In traditional Chinese culture the lions are seen as peaceful creatures and widely considered as divine animals of nobility and dignity. Throughout Chinese history the lion has been used to symbolic strength, courage, and wisdom. Since the 3’rd century AD pair of guardian lion statues, can often been seen in front of official buildings and temples to protect these premises. The pair is often made up of a male lion on the right and a female lion on the left. The right paw of the male lion rests on an ornamental ball and under the left paw of the female lion is a cup. The number of curls on the head of these lions depends on the rank of the officials whose premises they are guarding. Lion dance has a very long history. The first record of the performance of an early form of the Lion Dance dates to the early Ch’in and Han Dynasties (Third Century BC) However there are many different stories and myths about how and when the lion dance was originated, but sadly there are no exact historical records about its origin. This being the case it is difficult to place lion dance historically and state exactly how it started.

One of the most popular stories places the origin of lion dance to Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906). According to the legend the emperor of the time had a strange dream one night. In his dream a strange creature(lion) saved his life and carried him to safety. The next day, wondering what this creature was and what the dream meant, the emperor got his ministers together and described his dream. One of the ministers explained to the emperor that the strange creature resembled an animal(lion) from the west. The emperor ordered his ministers to create this lion he saw in his dream and since the lion saved emperor life, the lion became as a symbol of good luck, happiness, and prosperity.

Another story tells the story of a small village in China which was terrorised by a lion. One account has it that the all the villagers got together and used pans and pots to make very loud noise to scare the lion off. It is said some even put on costumes which looked like the lion. Eventually their trick worked, and the lion was gone. Another account of this same story tells that the villagers didn’t know how to stop the lion’s attacks, so they went to ask for the help of a Buddhist monk. It is said that the monk tamed the lion which in turn became the protector of the people. This monk is often represented by big headed Buddha (dai to fut), seen usually in most southern lion dances.

The last story of the origin of lion dance which I will write here has a strong mythical account. This mythical story tells the story of lion originated in heaven. The story goes that this mythical character was very mischievous and a practical joker which created a great deal of trouble. On one occasion he decides to play a practical joke on the Jade Emperor Jade Emperor was furious because of all the trouble caused by the lion and this was the last draw. He killed the lion by cutting the lions head off separating it from its body. It is said he then threw both the head and the body of lion down to the earth to rot. However not long after this incident, Kwan Yin (the goddess of mercy) felt sorry for the lion and decided to help him. Using a long red ribbon, she tied the lions head back on and brought him back to life. This red ribbon is still seen today is said to have the ability to scare off the evil spirits. Kwan Yin also gave the lion a horn to fight with and a mirror to frighten away the evil spirits.


Types Of Lions

Chinese Lion Dance is generally divided into two types: northern and southern. Northern lion dance or the Peking lion is popular in the northern parts of China. This type of lion with its mane (long lion like hair) looks more like a real lion than the southern lion. The performers of northern lion dance are dressed head to toe in a bright yellow fury costume with red fur on the back. The gold-coloured head of northern lion is smaller than the southern one and has less moveable mouth and a wide square jaw with a read beard. The movements of this lion are smooth and includes many acrobatic manoeuvres. The northern lion is also used in Peking Opera and during a lion dance performance they often appear in groups of three or more.

Southern Lion Dance is from the southern regions of China, popular throughout southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and the rest of the world. This type of lion dance is generally always performed by kung fu practitioners and reflects the kung fu style of the performers, or at least traditionally. Now days a few non-kung fu groups or centres such as Chinese culture centres also perform lion dance. The southern lion can be further grouped into two kinds: Hok-Shan and Fut-Shan. Hok-shan lion is the blend of northern-Peking lion and popular Fut-shan lion. Hok-Shan lion which is very popular among Malaysian Chinese and in Singapore has a shorter length body than the Fut-Shan lion which is very light coloured. This type of lion is a lot lighter than the Fut_shan lion which makes it ideal for a beginner or younger performers because it is easier to carry and use. Apart from it being very light it is also ideal for a beginner because its footwork and stances are very easy to learn, and it doesn’t require one to be trained in gung fu.

Fut-Shan lion on the other hand is often performed by the kung fu practitioners. It is routines and movements are heavily influenced by Chinese Martial arts. This lion dance requires strength, stamina, coordination, fast foot work and deep stances as well as many other aspects which are part of normal kung fu training. This is the most popular type of Lion dance seen all over the world. It is body is long and multi coloured but unlike its northern brother it doesn’t have long hair. Southern lion has a fierce face and big eyes. The head of the lion is quite heavy which requires strong arms and shoulders. It also has a very moveable mouth, eyes, and ears. The length of the lion’s beard represents the character/age of the lion and how long the school it represents has been in existence. A younger lion when dancing with an older/wise lion should always show respect.

There are also different types or colours of southern lions(head) which represents the characteristic and the attitudes of the lion. Each type of lion has significance and different meaning which fit specific lion dancing ceremonies. Although now days there are many different coloured southern lions, traditionally there were 3 different types. Each one of these lions represents one of the three famous Chinese Generals, Liu Pei ,Kwan Kung and Chang Fei.

Yellow or multi coloured lion represents the General Liu PEI This lion which has a long white beard is the oldest and the wisest out of all three. This yellow faced lion shows general Liu Pei’s intelligence, bravery, and kindness.

The red-faced lion with black beard represents the famous Chinese general and leader Kwan Kung. This lion shows General Kwan’s bravery and righteousness which he is known for. The red-faced lion also represents happiness, good luck, and prosperity.

The youngest out of all three is the general Chang Fei who is represented by the black lion which looks a lot fiercer than the other two lions. The black lion has a short black beard which shows its youthfulness and combative nature and represents General Chang Fei’s bravery and strength. This lion is also known as the fighting lion is very aggressive and strong. It is movements are quick, sharp, energetic, and always aggressive. This lion is used by newly established schools which hasn’t been around for long.


Lion Dance Team and Equipment

The lion dance team consists of at least 5 people or 6 people if the team has the big-headed Buddha (Dai do fut). The two members of the team perform the actual lion dance. One carries the lion head manipulates the movements of the head, mouth, eyes, and ears while the other person portrays the body and the tail of the lion under a long sheet of bright, multicoloured cloth. The other three members of the team plays the musical instruments. One plays the drum, one for the gong and one for the cymbal. Although many teams don’t use the big-headed Buddha, dai fut is an integral part of the lion dance. Dai fut is usually quite acrobatic and can be male or female who acts as the caretaker or tamer of the lion. The person who performs the role of dai fut wears a big pink mask with a big smile. Dai fut usually wears a traditional costume and carries a fan which he uses to play with and tease the lion.

Traditionally the lion heads were made from bamboo and paper Mache. However, the modern lions of today are made using aluminium or PVC pieces which makes the lion head quite light. The head is al so nicely painted and decorated with strings, fringes, tassels, and bells. The bright, multicoloured body or tail of the lion is made from silk or nylon and designed with different colours and patterns.


The Lion Dance – Routines, Emotions

As mentioned earlier the lion dance is performed by skilled kung fu practitioners, so the dance itself is heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts. There must be perfect coordination between the two people performing the lion dance. The lion must look alive. There must be perfect synchronisation between the movements of the lion and the music. The drummer must be very skilled and must know which drumbeat goes with each part of the lion’s movements or emotions. The cymbals and the gong follow the beat of the drum. In other words, or simply the whole lion dance team must work together.

The lion dance performance usually follows 3 stages during which the lion goes through and expresses many different emotions and displays different routines. The basic stages or parts of a lion dance performance are the opening, eating the green and closing. The lion dance begins with the opening stage where the lion bows 3 times which is a sign of respect and represents good luck greeting as well as showing the good nature of the lion. Traditional the lion is also required to bow to all religious and important figures or statues. The traditional lion dance always begins and ends with the lion bowing three times.

Eating the green or Choy Cheng is the most important part of a lion dance which is a symbolic gesture that brings luck and prosperity to the occasions. Also, during the time when China was ruled by the Ch’ing many martial artists who were also Ming patriots who wanted to overthrow the Ch’ing used lion dance to pass secret messages inside the Choy Cheng or the green. Choy Cheng literally means “green vegetable” which is a form of food (usually lettuce or similar green) for the lion to eat which will normally have a red envelope with money inside attached or tied to the green. Sometimes but very rarely a hard coconut or other type of food are used instead of the green. The choy cheng is usually hung from a doorway or similar places which is high of the ground. Sometimes the cheng might be on top of a very high pole or a building which requires very skilful dancers to get to it. There may also be many different types of obstacles placed before the choy cheng which the lion dance performers must pass through in order to get the green. The most commonly used obstacles are stacks of benches and tables etc… There are also variety of special routines which are associated with the eating of the green such as three stars surrounding the moon “sam sing bane yuet” and seven stars surrounding the moon “chat sing bune yuet”. All these obstacles and different routines are used to test the skill of the lion and makes the lion dance more exciting to watch.

The lion however doesn’t eat the green straight away but rather tests it first to make sure it is safe. It will very carefully approach near the green and blink its eyes to see through the green. Then using its head or the leg the lion will touch the green to make sure it is not dangerous, and it really is food. It will also make sure there are no others which may want to eat the green. Once satisfied the lion will then take the green in its mouth and starts chewing it, the red envelope attached to the green will be extracted and put in a safe place. After a short while the lion will spit or throw out the green tear by the person carrying the head. This green is thrown first to the left then to the right and finally to the middle to spread wealth and prosperity in all directions. Also being hit by the choy cheng which the lion spits out is said to bring good luck. Traditionally shortly after the eating the green part of the lion dance the firecrackers will be exploded and the lion dance will continue for a short while longer. The final part of the lion dance is the closing part where the lion bows three times which concludes the lion dance performance.

As mentioned earlier the lion dance involves many different routines where the lion expresses different emotions. Some of these are namely, sleepy lion, happy lion, angry lion, suspicious lion, joyful lion, drunk lion and so on…

Lion Dance Etiquette’s: Do’s and Don’ts

Lion Dance being a Chinese folk tradition is surrounded by many superstitions’ there are certain rules a lion dance team must follow in order to avoid being insulting or bringing bad luck. Some of these rules or correct etiquette are:

  • A new lion should not be used in a lion dance until it goes through the eye opening/dotting ceremony.
  • A younger lion should always show respect to an older lion and its head should not be held higher than the older
  • When performing during events such as new year and other festivities with other lion dance team’s lion heads should be at the same height. Keeping the head higher than the other lions is insulting and offensive and may result in a challenge.
  • The beard of the lion should not touch the ground Lion should bow(kow-tow) in the beginning and at the end of the performance.
  • If the lion dance takes place inside a building such as a restaurant or a shop, lion should bow 3 times (to the owner) before entering and while inside if there is an altar it is also polite to bow again three times.
  • When leaving/exiting a building, lion should exit tail first then the head.
  • During Choy Cheng – eating the green stage of the performance the lion should eat the green first before taking the red envelope.
  • Prior to a performance, the lion should lick the drum and the door before leaving the school as well as when it comes back (good luck)
  • etc…

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