About Lion Dances
Chinese Lion Dance, and the very similar Dragon Dance, is traditional to Chinese culture. It involves martial art, acrobatic and stage performance skills. Successful completion of the Lion Dance is said to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits.
Chinese lion dances can be broadly categorised into two styles, Northern and Southern.
Northern Lion Dance
Northern dance was used as entertainment for the imperial court and as it's name suggest, is more popular in the Northern parts of China. The northern lion is usually red, orange, and yellow (sometimes with green fur for the female lion), shaggy in appearance, with a golden head. The northern dance is acrobatic and is mainly performed as entertainment, similar to western theatres. Lion lion dance is often performed by two people but it is not uncommon to find smaller lions performed by just one performer. The more extravagant displays use 'plum blossom poles' to walk and jump on - this can be very impressive due to the exact timing needed between the two performers.
Southern Lion Dance
The Southern dance is a more popular lion dance because it's movement is much more elegant, acrobatic and entertaining. It is usually performed as a ceremony to exorcise evil spirits and to summon luck and fortune. The southern lion exhibits a wide variety of colour and has a distinctive head with large eyes, a mirror on the forehead, and a single horn at center of the head.
The Southern Lion Dance is always performed by two performers and often in pairs of two lions. As the Southern Lion Dance is more physically demanding most performers have a martial arts background, and are generally active in a school.
As our team performs the Southern style, the following details will focus on that.
When the lion eats, it is called 'Plucking the Greens' as it is usually lettuce or other vegetables that are placed together with a 'red packet' and placed in different ways for the lion. Skill is an important factor in the lion dance, it includes the tactical effort of the dancers and can be varied. It is believed that a more difficult performance brings greater prosperity. Quite often the customer will hang the lettuce up high and the dancers will have to 'stack' on top of each other to reach it.
For parties, weddings and the like, a scroll with Chinese calligraphy (luck, health, money) can be presented as well or instead of the choy cheng.
For both options this 'puzzle' for the lion to get to and eat or solve is referred to as the Choy Cheng.
Choy Cheng (Plucking the Greens 菜青)
To properly understand choy cheng, it is helpful to understand what the props and the actions of the lion dance represent.
The Chinesee word for "vegetable“ (菜; Choy) sounds similar to the Chinese word for wealth (財; also pronounced Choy), and so the vegetables used in Choy Cheng represent wealth. By taking and spitting out the vegetable, the lion is spreading wealth and good fortune to the person or business that the dance is being done for. Being hit by the choy cheng is said to bring good luck, and is seen as blessing and/or guard against misfortune.
Chairs and tables used in Lion Dancing represent bridges or mountains, and buckets of water or reams of blue clothe represent bodies of water such as streams, rivers, lakes, or oceans.
It is considered bad form to simply approach the food and take it. Instead an elaborate ritual or story is performed. Details on some of these are described below.
The Lion Dance starts with a bowing routine to the audience, showing respect and the good nature of the lion. This can be followed by blessing doorways, bowing to the business owner/bride & groom etc., and some 'play' between the Buddha character and Lions depending on the situation.
The Lion then 'spots' the Choy Cheng, and while being guided by the Buddha character either has to solve the choy cheng, or solve a puzzle put in place between the Lion and the choy cheng (such as a river or animal).
The Lion will carefully approach the puzzle, testing it a couple of times to make sure it is safe (traditionally against firecrackers and the like), before 'solving' the puzzle, either by crossing the obstacle, or eating the animal or choy cheng.
Once completing the puzzle the lion and Buddha can entertain the guests and collect the hongbao (red envelopes 紅包) - guests are encouraged to put money in the hongbao as tips, and in doing so are said to share in the wealth and good luck being presented to the Lion Dance organiser.
Tin Cheng (Sky/Heaven Green 天青)
In these dances the lion is required to recover food that has been placed high in the air. This can be from a hung from a doorway or ceiling, held from a long bamboo pole, or secured to the outside of a building. Typically the lead Lion Dancer must jump on his/her partner to reach the vegetable and requires exceptional skill and balance.
Dei Cheng (Earth Green 地青)
In these dances the food is placed on the ground in a specific pattern, this forms a puzzle that the lion must attempt to solve. The puzzles can be based on animals, religion, word play, water, skill, literature, or a combination of two or more of them.
See Jee Gwo Kiew (Lion Crossing the Bridge 獅子過橋)
Here the lion finds a river (or other water feature) blocking his way to the choy cheng. The lion must navigate the bridge (wooden benches or other mock bridge structure) or stepping stones (plant pots) to get to the prize, and return afterwards. In some instances the bridge can be broken, or the choy cheng is placed under the bridge, or next to the bridge in the river.
Animal puzzles are popular in Dei Cheng 地青 performances, with the lion facing such creatures as snakes, crabs, fish, scorpions, centipedes, tortoises, dragons and spiders. To solve these puzzles the lion will have to dissect a representation of the animal formed from a mix of food, chopsticks and weapons.
Duk sieh zoh lou (Poisonous Snake Blocking the Road 毒蛇阻路)
The snake formation is a popular animal dei cheng and can take many different forms. The snake can represent an obstacle that blocks good fortune from entering a business or home. The word for snake sounds similar to the word for death, so by removing the snake the lion removes whatever is killing the business.
The snake is comprised of a body, head, fangs and eyes. The body is normally represented by a spear or staff. The head is made from a lettuce, the eyes from oranges and the fangs from knives or similar weapons.
To solve the puzzle the lion must blind, disarm and then kill the snake before being able to continue with the performance.
After the dissection the lion may spit out the staff or spear (as a bone it can't digest), which the Buddha can catch and either perform a Kung Fu sequence (while the lion sleeps) or fight the lion.
The crab is formed from a body, legs, claws and eyes. A lettuce placed under a bowl, pan or bucket (usually green, and never red, as a red crab would indicate it has been cooked) to represent the body, chopsticks or pieces of bamboo are used for the legs and claws, and oranges or tangerines are used for the eyes.
The crab is solved in the same manner as the snake puzzle.