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The Lion dance is a traditional folk art, which has been practised for centuries, its wide spread

popularity, has extended far beyond the borders of China to all parts of the world.

There are many stories about its origin, one of the most popular states that many centuries ago

the land was plagued by famine.

One night the emperor dreamt of a strange beast that had the power to bring good luck and chase away evil from the land.

 Next morning he ordered the servants to make replicas of the beast and go out into the country to rid the land of evil spirits, this they did and order and prosperity was returned.

Another story states that in a certain part of China, a beast would appear at the same time each year and rob the farmers of their crops. While the beast never harmed the farmers physically the

taking of food was a very serious matter.

One year the village elder had an idea on how they could scare the beast away, everyone in the village set about making replicas of the beast and at the appointed time everyone went out into the fields with the replicas and pots, pans and musical instruments.

When the beast arrived they danced with the replicas and beat the pots and pans making much

noise scaring the beast away.

So every year since around the time of the spring festival the lion dancers can still be seen  bringing good luck and scaring away evil influences.

Its performance can add much colour and festivity to any important occasion. This is most vividly seen around the Chinese New Year, when the lion is used to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.

Those who practise the lion dance are mostly kung fu practitioners, the reason being that in performing the dance a high degree of agility, strength and stamina is required. The footwork and various movements such as leaps and jumps are also found in kung fu styles.

Great emphasis is placed on depicting the strength, vigour and forcefulness of the lion.

 
 
Old Style Lion Dance Team Taiwan  


Lion Dance 
By Vince Hinde



The Lion Dance is an important tradition in China. Usually the dance is part of festivities like Chinese New Year where the firecrackers and loud music scare off the ‘evil spirits’ allowing the good luck to enter and the openings of restaurants and weddings. If well performed, the lion dance is believed to bring luck and happiness. Of course, like all superstitious and ‘lucky’ things it can’t be proven but with the Chinese people being so pragmatic they will have a Lion Dance 'just in case' and it’s now become a tradition.

Although lions are not native in China, they probably came to the 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 was noted during the Tang Dynasty (716-907 A.D.).

Most westerners confuse the Lion Dance with the Dragon Dance (and on pottery, the fu dogs). If I had a pound for every time I have watched a Lion Dance and overheard "oh there's the Dragon Dance" I would be a rich man! They are quite different things.

For a start, the Lion Dance has two people working in the costume, there may be others 'suited up' with trousers waiting to swap over, but there is only ever two working in the same lion at the same time. A dragon on the other hand can have as many as you have uniform for (provided the dragon’s  long enough) under the dragon at the same time. There was a 2,008M long Dragon made for the Bejing Olympics which had about 1200 dancers. Another notable Dragon was the 'Dragon at the Great Wall' project which was 3,048M long. They can be as long as you can afford and have the bodies for.

There is also the Unicorn Dance, popular with the Hong Kong Hakka and the Tiger Dance. I have never seen the Tiger Dance or know much about it but I have seen the Tiger costume which was a magnificant resplendent piece of kit.

In this article though I want to focus on the Lion Dance and will take a look at the others another time.

There are many forms of Lion although the main two are Northern Lion and Southern Lion. 

The Northern Lion is usually more acrobatic than the Southern and looks a little like Dougal from the Magic Roundabout . It is characterised by its prancing movement, friendly nature and athleticism.
The Southern Lions are more vigourus in their movement with strong,sharp movements interspersed with a feline like cautiousness. It is at this point that I must say that every team whilst having some common themes may vary slightly. My experience is gained from a Honk Kong troupe and so my understanding is based around that. Just because your experience and tradition may be different does not make it wrong, just different.  

There are two more common types,  Fatsan (Fozhuang, Fatshan) and Hoksan (Hokshan) the Hoksan has a squatter head shaped like a duck and a shorter body. There are also hybrid types with short bodies, long bodies etc.. I personally  prefer the Fat-Hok hybrid with the Fatsan head and the short Hoksan body, that way the rear person can see better !

The lion is played by two dancers. One handles the head, made out of strong but light materials like paper-mache and bamboo; the other plays the tail (body) under a cloth that is attached to the head. The lion is accompanied by musicians, playing a large drum, cymbals and a gong. The head dancer can move the lion's eyes, mouth and ears for expression of moods. Sometimes, for added realism, bulbs are fitted to the eyes to make them light up.  A dancer playing a Buddha may also be present who teases and guides the lion with a fan or a giant ball.

The lion dance combines art, history and kung fu moves. Normally, (although not essentially), the performers are kung fu practitioners as the moves can be quite vigorous and often replicate kung fu moves. Moreover, dancing for long periods requires good stamina and is great training.

Every kind of move has a specific musical rhythm. The drum follows the lion and the lion follows the drum. This is not as 'enigmatic' as it sounds, the drum does follow the moves of the lion but the the drum can prompt the lion as well by changing the rythym so it’s important for the lion to listen to the drum.

Different sections have their own rythym (which will be practised), sleep, taking the greens, waves, happies, eating and throwing the greens, respect bow, final bow etc.. the dance itself will also have a pre-arranged basic plan. The cymbals and gong follow the drum. It is the flexibility which makes it so interesting as a performer as although there are set patterns that are practised, each dance is different. This is where the drum leading the lion can come into play as an experienced team will play off each other.

There are also routines where a lion will symbolically eat a crab, snake or in modern times even drink bottles of beer where they have been put out by restaurant owners for the lion to drink. Basically, Chinese lions are very mischievous by nature and it would be considered very lucky to be ‘trashed’ by a lion.  Of course, in a competition this ‘anything goes’ attitude may not be possible. One must also take into account in a peformance, that although any Chinese in the audience will appreciate a lion’s mischievousness and find it lucky; a non-Chinese person may find being interfered with by a lion disrespectful and even a challenge.

Talking of competition,the Southern Lion Dance also sub-divides again into competition and traditional. Although very similar, the competition styles are instantly recognisable by the music. Where the traditional style will have an irregular beat; the competiotion teams tend to have a constant beat through the music. It is very similar to the South East  Asian styles found in Singapore and Malaysia.  

Payment to the lion is traditionally made when the lion ‘eats the greens’ or  Choy Cheng,  Choy literally meaning vegetable. Usually. the lay see (payment) is in the form of a hung bao (lucky red envelope with the payment enclosed) which is tied to some greens such as a lettuce. The greens are placed in an area for the lion to “eat.” Most restaurants will like to test how good the lion is by hanging the greens as high as possible (hurrah....thanks). The lion will gain much face if it can take the greens without having to resort to standing on a chair.The lion will carefully approach the ‘greens’ and test it to make sure that it is safe and not a firecracker or other dangerous item. After testing on the left and right sides, the lion will do a “3-Star” routine (stepping to the 3-Star music) to ward off any others that may want to eat his “green.”  It is understandable that the lion will take the lay see first as after all greens are tasty but money is money and Chinese people will understand this. The person manipulating the head reaches through the mouth and removes the ‘lay see’  and places it inside their shirt, so as not to drop it, which would mean bad luck. If there are any oranges, pineapples or other fruit, these would be taken next.  It is good form to take an orange, peel it in the mouth and hand some of the peeled fruit back to the restaurant owner/Manager. It will give them great face. Finally when all the lay see and other fruits are taken the lion will then pick up the greens in his mouth and “chew” them. In practise, the head dancer passes the lettuce back to the rear dancer. The head will make a show of eating whilst the rear tears the lettuce apart. It is then passed back to the front where the head dancer will throw it out first to the left, then to the right and then to the middle to help spread prosperity in all directions. After the final throw the music changes and the lion ‘goes crazy’ perhaps performing some rolls and other neat tricks as the lion is happy to have consumed his fill. The lion may be tired then from eating and need to sleep or alternatively you may decide to start the final bows and finish. 

 

Our Lion Dance teams have over 20 years experience in Lion Dance arts with branches throughout  the UK we can offer a one stop reference point for all your Lion Dance needs.

 
 

 

We have worked with many fundraising charities including Adoption Societies, Multi Cultural Groups, Chinese Societies, Local and National Fundraisers ETC.

 We have staged many performances for various business enterprises which include Corporate Functions, Opening of New Business premises, New Year parties in Chinese restaurants, Wedding Parties and Birthday Parties.      

We offer Lion Dance Workshops for schools which is a great way to teach children about other cultures and for those who have China Study Modules it’s an excellent way to have hands on experience of Chinese Folk Art.