The Chinese Lion Dance is customarily performed during the Lunar New Year to herald in the new year and bring prosperity, good luck and peace. It is also performed at business openings, weddings, and other celebratory events to bring peace and good fortune. It has traditionally been performed by male martial artists.
The lion dance is not only looked upon as the skillful display of strength and artistry but as the discipline of mind and body. Externally, it enhances health and is for self defense. It is also the cultivation of inner strength and self discipline to receive life’s challenges with grace and elegance. The transmission of martial arts and the lion dance is the conveyance of tradition, lineage, skill and relationship. It requires respect, loyalty and reverence to the Sifu, Troupe Leader, musician, fellow students and lion.
The Lion Dance is enacted by two dancers. One handles the head, made out of strong, but light materials like paper-mache and bamboo. The other plays the body and the tail under a cloth that is attached to the head. A Buddha teases and accompanies the lion with a fan. The Buddha figure is significant because it represents a temple monk, who trained the lions and started the tradition.
The lion is also accompanied by musicians, playing a large drum, cymbals, and a gong. The music follows the moves of the lion and symbolizes the roar of the lion. The drum follows the lion, the cymbals and the gong follow the drum player.
History and Folklore
Lions were not native to China, but rather came via the traders of the Silk Road. Rulers in what is today Iran and Afghanistan sent lions to Chinese emperors as gifts in order to obtain the right to trade with Silk Road merchants. The Lion Dance dates back to the Han (205 BC – 220 AD) and the Tang (716 – 907 AD) dynasties.
According to legend, one day, a strange creature appeared and preyed on men and beasts. It’s name was nien (which sounds like the Chinese word meaning “year”). It was so fast and fierce that not even the ox or the tiger could slay it. In despair, the people turned to the lion for help. Rushing to meet the terrible foe, the lion wounded the creature who ran away. As the nien fled, it turned and screamed, “Beware! I will return and take my revenge.”
A year later, the nien did return. By then, the lion was so busy with his new job guarding the emperor’s gate that he could not help. So the villagers hurriedly took some bamboo and cloth and made an image of the lion. Two men crawled inside and made it run and prance and roar. Faced with this awesome creature, the nien ran away again. And so, on the eve of the Chinese New Year, lions dance, sending menace and evil away for yet another year.