Everything you ever wanted to know about the Chinese lion dance tradition

So you enjoy watching the lion dance, and so does your child? But do you know what the lion dance is really about? We tell you all about it in this article!

The lion dance during the Chinese New Year is a much cherished tradition

The Chinese lion dance during the New Year is a much cherished tradition

As we welcome in the fire monkey this Lunar New Year, we might be missing the sounds of firecrackers but the drumbeats of the Chinese lion dance echo through our community as we go about our visits to our relatives’ and friends’ houses.

Other than being highly entertaining, the Chinese lion dance also has a rich cultural and historical significance behind it. But what is the lion dance really about and why is it often considered auspicious?

What is a Chinese lion dance?

A lion dance is basically two men (sometimes women) dressed in a lion costume, prancing around to the beat of the drums. They will show off their dexterity and skill as they attempt a coordinated feat of bringing down a symbol of good fortune such as a couplet or even a vegetable from an elevated place.

Lion dancing is an art form that requires martial arts training

Lion dancing is an art form that requires martial arts training

Lion dancers are usually grouped into martial art schools and the lion dance is a way of showcasing their skills. The Chinese lion dance is an art form that requires training and practice to accomplish.

Origins

The Chinese lion dance goes as far back as the Han Dynasty and there are many myths and legends surrounding this practice.

However, the most compelling one is that of the story of Nian the monster. Nian especially liked kidnapping children and he terrorized villages year after year. Finally, one year, a lion defeated and chased the monster away. Nian was livid and vowed to return the next year when he was certain that the lion would be gone by then. Instead, the villagers outwited Nian by creating a costume in the likeness of a lion and two villagers used it to scare him away. The legend also says that loud noises from the drum, other instruments, and firecrackers helped chase Nian away. Red is worn during the New Years celebration because it was also believed that the the ferocious beast was afraid of the colour red.

Another story says that it was a visiting monk who managed to tame the terrible beast by tying a red ribbon around its body. From then on, instead of terrorizing the village, he used his might to act as a guardian.

North vs South

Apparently, even in lion speak, there is a North South divide in the form of the types of lions that are used during such ceremonies. To the layman, all these lions might look the same, but there are clear distinctions.

For one, the southern variations usually have a horn on the head. For another, the  dance of the Northern Lion is generally more playful than the Southern Lion. There are different stances and poses, depending on whether it is a Northern or Southern lion as well.

In Singapore, the Southern Lions are usually Southern lions. Southern lions may be further sub-divided into either the Fut San or Hok San. The Fut San lion dance pre-dates the Hok San and because of that they are more martial-arts oriented while the Hok San is more “entertaining” and focuses more on the artistry and movement.

The lion dance costume is all geared toward fighting evil!

The lion dance costume is all geared toward fighting evil!

The Lion Costume Dissected

Have you ever wondered what the various thingabobs on the lion costume were for (other than looking pretty during the dance?) A huge part of the lion dance is the belief that they ward off evil and usher in good luck and prosperity, so the lion dance has been equipped as such.

The horns of the lion are for fighting off evil spirits and energies. Similarly, the mirror in Chinese culture is believed to be a powerful tool in warding off such malevolent entities and all lions are equipped with them during the performance.

A red ribbon around the lion signifies that the lion is “tame” and a guardian! Remember the origins story? Meanwhile the huge mouth facilities the lion in taking down the prize item (usually a bundle of lucky vegetables or a couplet) from an elevated position.

Dos and Don’ts

As a member of the audience enjoying the performance, do take note of some important guidelines.

Firstly, do not grope and do not tap the back of the lion! That might cause the lion dancer to become startled. Also the back of the lion is basically the dancer’s butt.

Secondly, do not touch its horns or mirror. Those are for fighting evil spirits and interfering with these important tools is considered inauspicious.

Third, white is considered inauspicious (which is why white is sometimes used as a mourning colour during Chinese funerals), so do not put anything white near the lion.

Fourth, never jump over a lion, even if there is nobody in it. It is considered very disrespectful, especially since it is a guardian.

Fifth, on the other hand, DO enjoy yourself and give a huge round of applause when the performance is over!

We hope you enjoyed our article on the lion dance tradition! What other Chinese traditions would you like to know about? Let us know in the comments below.