History

The lion dance (舞獅 or Mou See) has been part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years. The Chinese use the lion dance to spread all the good blessings of the Gods to the whole community.

The lion (獅子 See Ji), a symbol of power, wisdom, and good fortune, chases away evil spirits and brings happiness, longevity, and good luck. Firecrackers, loud gongs and cymbals are used to assist in chasing away these evil spirits.

The lion dance performance generally depicts a lion stalking for food (lettuce) along with a hongbao (紅包; red packet) containing money which express the gratitude for the blessing. After eating the lettuce, the lion spits the greens back to the business or audience which signifies the showering of good luck.

The lion dance is performed at many business locations, such as restaurants, during the Chinese Lunar New Year Celebrations for the lion brings prosperity and good luck to the businesses for the upcoming year.

As well as performing during the Lunar New Year celebrations lion dances are also requested for special occasions, like grand openings and weddings, and represents wealth, prosperity and good fortune for those present.

The History of Lion Dance has many variant origins. The following is a compilation of the most acknowledged concepts gathered from various sources of text and digital media (Internet). The following is also to be used as reference material only.

Background

Although lions are not native in China, they came to it 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 BCE to 220 CE in China) and during the Tang Dynasty (716 to 907 CE) it was at its peak. It was particularly performed during religious festivals. Lion Dancing became so popular that it was even exported to Japan, first as a formal court entertainment. In China, Lion Dancing was used to celebrate the Chinese New Year and other special occasions. The lion dance was also introduced 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.

Folklore

There are many stories as to how the Lion Dance started:

The story of the “Nian”:

The legend says "Nian" (pronounced Nee-en) who was a fierce monster, especially liked kidnapping children. He terrorized villages year after year. Finally, one year, a lion defeated and chased the monster away. “Nian” vowed to return next year. This time the villagers did not have a lion to protect themselves. So, they solved the problem by creating a costume likeness of a lion and two villagers used it to scare “Nian” away. This is the reason the lion dance is performed every Chinese New Year.

The legend also says that loud noises from the drum, other instruments, and firecrackers helped scare the “Nian” away. Red is worn during the New Years celebration because it was also believed that the “Nian“, was afraid of the colour red. The word "Nian," thought the yearly ceremony, has become the Chinese word for year.

The Emperor’s Dream:

Another origin of the lion dance is that an emperor of the Tang Dynasty had a dream in which a strange creature saved his life. When he woke, he described his dream. His advisers said the creature he described resembled the lion, a creature from the West. The emperor commissioned the lion dance in honor of the creature that saved his life. The Tang dynasty saw lion dancing at its peak.

Kuan Yin’s (pronounced Gwoon Yum) Compassion:

Another origin story places the Lion as a mystical creature that existed in the heavens. The Lion was a playful and mischievous creature, so much so that one day he caused too much trouble for the King of Heaven to control. As a punishment, he cut off the Lions’ legs and sent his body down to Earth to perish. (The reason why the Lion costume is head and tail only). Kuan Yin, the Goddess of mercy, saw this and took pity of the Lion. She transformed the Lion added mystical elements (explained later on below), from different animals, in order to tame him and make the Lion into a force for good.

Types of Lion Dance

Basically, there are two distinct schools of Lion Dancing; the Northern and the Southern. These two schools are both different in the style and also in the Lion costumes, but the common factor is that it takes two people to perform in a Lion.

Southern Style 南獅

The older, Southern Lion Dancing is the more traditional and is formed by ritual and custom. It is generally a more formalized style, with strict movements, but in current times, movements have been modified and refined to be more realistic. The Southern Lion is a symbol of strength and goodness. It is the spirit of change, the yang element and therefore symbolizes the cycle of life.

There are two main styles of Guangdong or Cantonese Lion: the Fut San or Fo Shan (佛山; literally: "Buddha Mountain"), and the Hok San or He Shan (鹤山; literally: "Crane Mountain"), both named after their place of origin. Other minor styles include the Fut-Hok or Fo-He (佛鶴; a hybrid of Fut San and Hok San created in Singapore in the 1960s), and the Jow Gar (周家; performed by practitioners of Jow family style kung fu). The different lion types can be identified from the design of the lion head; Fut San lions have an aggressive, tall head, whereas Hok San lions' heads are flatter and more animal-like. Our team uses Fut San lions.

Northern Style 北獅

The northern lion has a mane and four legs and is generally more realistic looking than the southern lion, which has a drape and can have two or four legs. One performer holds the lion’s head with both hands and another crouches at the lion’s tail. The southern lion’s head looks is shaped more like a dragon’s but without horns or a long snout. The southern lion makes dramatic head thrusts to the sound of drums and gongs; the northern lion makes great use of its prancing legs in its dance.

Symbolism – Colours & Mysticism

The Lion is most revered and is symbolized by five colours (yellow, black, green, red and white), marks the five directions of the Chinese compass over which it has control and the five elements of life.

Yellow: Earth (Center)

Black: Water (North)

Green: Wood (East)

Red: Fire (South)

White: Metal (West)

The Lion's nose is usually green in colour which symbolizes good luck, prosperity and the influence of heaven. Adorned on the forehead of the Lion is a magical mirror, a symbol to scare away evil spirits by reflecting their own image against them, and also the ability to travel between heaven and earth.

Symbolism - Animals

Several animals are also represented on the Lion head itself.

The horn is shaped like a bird for the phoenix, symbol for life and regeneration, also associated with representing the female element.

The ears and the tail are shaped like a mystical creature Qi-Lin (麒麟 Kei Lun) or Chinese unicorn, representing wisdom and good luck.

The spine represents the snake, charm and wealth.

The back hump of the head represents the tortoise, longevity.

The forehead and the beard are from the dragon, strength, leadership and the male element.

Symbolism – Historical

The Three Kingdoms era was one of the bloodiest and darkest in China’s history. (220 – 280 CE) It was a time of power struggles between smaller kingdoms, which then lead to the formation of three larger states at war for power. Although relatively short when compared to other Chinese Dynasties, it is the most romanticized time period often shown in Chinese opera, folk stories, novels and even modern day movies. This period ended with the legend of the Three brothers, Liu Bei (劉備 Lau Bei), Guan Yu (關羽 Gwan Yoo), and Zhang Fei (張飛 Cheung Fei), who fought and successfully unified the three warring kingdoms of China.

This symbolism was then adopted to Lion Dance as well:

Liu Bei Lion (劉備獅): Yellow or Gold Lion, white hairs, represents gentle qualities. He was the leader and is the tame lion.

Guan Yu Lion (關公獅): Usually a Red Lion with black hairs and a longer beard. He is the skilled and the wise lion.

Zhang Fei Lion (張飛獅): Black Lion with black or white hairs. He is the strong and brave lion, and has a temperament.

The Lion Dance

As much as the Lion embodies all these forces and powers, the Lion is still a wild animal and must be tamed, disciplined and dedicated to help man utilize the yang element (cycle of life mentioned before). One method to achieve this was to find a way to communicate with the spirit world and to influence the workings of these forces of nature for one's benefit.

To achieve this, the Lion must be “awakened” in a ceremony. By this ceremony, the Gods and the Deities are asked to look favourably to grant and bestow spiritual life to the Lion. The Lion is now called Sing See (醒獅) or “awakened Lion”. The Lion now becomes, neither God nor Deity, but agent assigned by Heaven to bestow blessings of wealth and happiness to the community and to dispel evil forces and pestilence.

Other elements of the Lion dance include paying respects via bows to the audience, leading party, deity location (Sun Wei) or location of prosperity (i.e. Cash register, doorway to a business). When more than one Lion appears, elements include playing (i.e. tail chases), fighting (i.e. head bites), grooming, scratching and similar animal-like interactions.

The Lion will then proceed to the eating element. Lettuce is usually used, and when eaten symbolizes the appeasement of the Lion and, in turn, the Lion will bestow good fortune to the provider. When the Lion spits out the Lettuce (菜 "Choy"), it represents spreading Prosperity (發財 “Fut Choy”, as in Gung Hey Fut Choy 恭喜發財). Sometimes, the Lion will also be fed scrolls with lucky sayings when lettuce is inappropriate.

The Buddha

Sometimes the Lion Dance also includes a Buddha character, the "Dai Tau Fut" (大頭佛 literally "Big Head Buddha") . The Buddha originates from the Buddhist/Shaolin monks that were thought to have trained the first lion dancers, and his role is to play, tame and direct the Lion’s movements.

The Music

The Lion Dance is also characterized by the use of three main instruments, the drum, cymbals and the gong. The drum serves as the main beat in which the movements are synchronized to, and also to add emphasis on certain maneuvers and stunts. Accompanying the drum are the cymbals and gong, which served as a means to scare away bad luck via loud noise, but also serves as a means in which to promote a sense of emotion when performing the Lion Dance. If the Lion presents a curious and investigative attitude, the music will quieten; but when the Lion is aggressive and charges towards its target, the music will explode with a thunderous noise, as if the Lion himself were roaring.

All these elements are brought together to become a complete Lion Dance performance.

The Result

The Chinese cultural personality attached great importance to stability and harmony. Primarily, a people of this world, the early Chinese strove to attain stability and harmony in their immediate surroundings and not in distant paradise or in remote future times. It seems very natural that the Chinese wished to prolong their lives and increase good fortune in order to enjoy the pleasures of their worldly existence. Thus the Lion is revered as a means of achieving these goals.

In summary, the Lion represents a vehicle of dispensing all the good blessings of Heaven to the whole community. It represents the hopes and aspirations of the Chinese people for all the good things life holds. The formal dedication and performances have continued to be a reminder of Heaven's blessings and protection over the centuries.