The lion is a symbol of "strength, courage and wisdom." The lion dance is performed during lunar New Years, openings of stores or restaurants, weddings, and various other celebrations and festivals. The dance is to ward off any evil spirits and demons, so as to bring good luck, happiness and prosperity.
There are many myths surrounding lion dance. In one of the more popular myths, it is believed that once upon a time in China, there was a terrifying monster named Nian that lives in the moutain. Every new year it would attack the village below the moutain and slaughter people and animals. So one year the Jade Emperor sent a lion to protect the village. Upon seeing Nian, the lion shakes its mane and scared the monster away. The villagers were very thankful. Unfortunately the next year, the lion had to guard the Jade Emperor's palace so it couldn't come help, so the villages constructed a puppet that looks like the lion and used it to confront Nian. It worked perfectly, and the tradition passed on.
In another myth, it was believed that the lion was really naughty used to live in Heaven. One day the Jade Emperor got so fed up with him, he ordered to behead the lion and throw his remains down to Earth. Upon seeing the poor lion, the Goddess of Mercy "Kuang Xie Yin" retrieved the lions remains, used a red ribbon to reconnect the head and the body, and breathed life into the lion again. Since that day, the lion has been a loyal follower of the buddah, and the magical red ribbon has also helped in repelling evil spirits. That is also why you see a red ribbon on the lions horn.
In yet another more realistic myth, it was said that one of the Emperor of the Tong Dynasty dreamed about a magical beast, and after waking up, he ordered his men to reconstruct what he dreamed of... and lion dance was born. In a slightly different version, it was said that there was no lion living in China, so the India Ambassador brought a lion with him during one visit. After they leave, the Emperor ordered his men to construct a lion similar to the beast, and lion dance was born.
Have you always wondered why there was a big head buddah accompanying the lion? Apparently the buddah is a renegade monk and is after a magical mushroom (Ling Gee), however, the buddah doesn't have the ability to get it himself, that is why he enlisted the help of the lion. Sometimes you might even see a female buddah, she is known as the Jade Willow. Apparently in the past, an Opera troupe performing lion dance saw a monk flirting with a tall skinny woman in a temple. The members of the Opera troupe thought it was hilarious and incorporated them into their lion dance routine, and the Jade Willow was born.
Historically, the more modern lion dance that we know today was brought on by the Red Opera Boat. Lion Dance used to be an act performed by Chinese Opera practioners and later adopted by Kung Fu Schools where the art really flurished. Now historians are finding records that Lion Dance dated much longer, and it used to be a grand event performed for Emprors by at least 100 lions accompanied by singers and dancers.
Today there are many different views regarding Lion Dance, some troupes still hold the religious aspect of lion dance firmly (Lion Dance is deeply rooted with the Tao religion), while others viewed it as a sport. Regardless of the motive, lion dance is still one of the highlight of any Chinese New Year event. There are now talks of including lion dance as one of the Olympic Sporting event in 2008 along with Wushu, it will be an interesting year in China.
There are two different types of lion dancing... Northern and Southern. Northen lion has long and shaggy orange and yellow hair. During performance it bounces around like a Peking Dog and its movements are all very life-like. The Northern lions specialize in stunts like lifts or walking on giant ball. The Northern lion usually perform in family, the lion with the red bow is the male, green bow is the female, there are usually two smaller lions as well.
The Southern style can be further divided into Fut San (Buddah Mountain) and Hok San (Crane Mountain). Fut San is the style most Kung Fu school adapts. It requires superior strength and stance, something non-Kung Fu practioners might find difficult to do without extensive practices. The lion becomes the representation of the Kung Fu school and only the most advance students are allowed to perform. The Hok San style can be considered the more contemporary style of lion dancing. It has really been promoted these last few decades by the now renowed lion dance master Sifu Siow in Malaysia. The Hok San style features a lion with similar movements as the Northern lion and focuses on more natural life like movements and stunts. Its shorter tail is also a favorite among the troupes that do pole jumping.
Contemporary lion dance becomes even more complex than simply stepping away from the religious aspects of this art. Much dispute over traditional lion dancing and contemporary lion dancing created a rift between lion dance troupes, making it difficult to share lion dance with other cultures sometimes. There are many contemporary groups that see lion dance as a hobby, a form of recreation, and those that are still very traditional and view lion dance as their pride and dignity. On the other hand, the traditional values that kung fu schools hold remain to be beneficial for lion dancing. For example, because of the kung fu stances and physical training, students are better able to learn the proper forms of lion dance. Students are more motivated to learn the art, and learn it well because it is a source of income for the school, as well as the pride and dignity of the troupe. Contemporary troupes may not have the same drive to learn the art well, and individuals' skill range may depend on their individual dedication to learning lion dance. Traditional troupes value the quality of their performance as well. It would shame the school if they performed incorrectly in public, whereas non-traditional troupes are more relaxed about their style and stances and movements. This can be a downside, because non-Chinese audiences may be witnessing improper styles of lion dance, but on the other hand, it leaves room for individual groups to add in their own unique flare in the troupe's style. It is important to understand that not all lion dance troupes teach kung fu, nor do all kung fu schools teach lion dance. Some of the top lion dance troupes in the world are not associated with kung fu, but are influenced by it through the stances, footwork, and physical endurance required for lion dance.
Lion dance is much more than just a performance put on by two people under a papier-mâché lion, and much more than an art. There is a complex history behind this seemingly straightforward, entertaining folk sport. It is a tradition that has been maintained for many centuries, and with its popularity globally, it can continue being handed down for many generations to come.* A good portion of this page is taken from Liz Hum's research paper on Chinese Lion Dance. If you are interested in reading the full paper, please click here to download (Word doc).