Chinese Lion Dance

Chinese Lion Dance is high energy and fun dance dates back centuries.


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Chinese Lion Dance

History of Lion Dance:
Hundreds of years ago, a small Chinese village was threatened on the eve of the lunar new year by local bandits who dressed themselves as strange beasts (nien). The beasts scared the villagers away and looted their homes and farmland. Frightened and discouraged from being left hungry and poor, the villagers decided to stand up to the unknown beast and crafted costumes that resembled a lion. These costumes were made of bamboo frames and covered with paper mache painted in bright colors and details. The dancers in the costumes would dance while others hit pots and pans to make noise. With all the commotion and costumed people dancing under the mysterious costumes, the villagers were able to scare away the bandits. This eventually led them to believe that the Lion Dance wards off bad luck, scares away evil spirits, and ushers in good luck. To commemorate the event, the dance was passed from generation to generation, gradually becoming a part of the Chinese traditional martial arts. Whenever the people celebrate, it was inevitable that the dance was performed as a form of thanks-giving. From that moment, the tradition of Lion Dance was born.

Although lions are not native in China, they came to this country via the famous Silk Road. Rulers in what is today Iran and Afghanistan sent lions to Chinese emperors as gifts in order to get the right to trade with Silk Road merchants. The lion dance dates back to the Han Dynasty (205 B.C. to 220 A.D in China) and during the Tang Dynasty (716-907 A.D.) it was at its peak. It was particularly performed during religious festivals. The lion dance was not only introduced in China, but also in Korea and Taiwan, where lions are not native as well. The dances are not exactly the same in these countries, but the symbolism is quite similar.

What is Lion Dance?
Lion Dance embraces the beauty, art, culture, traditions, and history of China. A good performance is believed to bring luck and happiness. Gestures and movements that closely mimic the emotions of the mystical animal tells the story behind the performance. Emotions and expressions portrayed by the dancers include excitement, caution, curiosity, playful, anger, sleepiness, confusion, happiness, and sadness, to name a few. In addition to this, acrobatic skills are sometimes displayed by the dancers to add excitement to the performance.

The Lion is made of paper mache and is controlled by two people. One person plays the head, and the other person plays the tail and they both choreograph their movements to the rhythm of a drum beat. The choreographed set usually takes place in a setting of a story where a hungry lion awakens and seeks out food most commonly in the form of lucky green lettuce. This lucky lettuce is offered by the people and is usually placed in a manner that the Lion must move about an obstacle in order to grab and eat it. Some of these obstacles require the Lion to climb, jump, or move about cautiously to check for traps and other ambushes to ensure a safe path to the lucky green.

The lion’s bamboo frame The paper mache shell Working on the unfinished head
Sometimes seen accompanying the Lion is the comical monk, who plays the role of the Lion’s mentor and helps it seek out the lucky green lettuce. The monk has a very large round head and is always in good spirits. His lighthearted character often acts foolish and silly, making him very likable.

The lion is an important Chinese totem, the symbol of power, majesty and courage, capable of warding off evil spirits. In Chinese legend it is said that the lion was the ninth son of the dragon and was the best employable guard, thus it was usually seen in front of royal palaces, offices and residences. Lion and Dragon dance is more frequently performed during the Lunar New Year and can be seen in all parts of the community including schools, birthdays, corporate functions, sponsored events, festivals, and even Bah Mitzvahs.