Lion Dance - A Lunar New Year Event

Lion dance has been a popular activity for any Chinese festival or celebration. It is seen most frequently during the 15 days of Lunar New Year celebration, as well as any new business launching event, or other Chinese festivals or carnival-like events. In China, lion dance has become part of the martial arts novelty, and would be presented in many martial art shows or events.

The colourful dance of the "lion" is truly an art that is full of mysterious and intriguing stories. It is performed in fast actions with plenty of acrobatic movements such as jumping up and down, as well as on high poles, by those who practise martial arts. The lion dance gear (especially the head) is said to be rather heavy. The dance plot usually include moving the lion through many obstacles (up high poles or against other performers dressed as intruders) towards the destination called the Qing (means "green" in Chinese), then an action called Cai Qing (means "plucking/picking the green" to pluck the Qing off where ever it is attached to. The Qing is normally represented by a bunch of green lettuce hung over some hard-to-get-to places, or if it is a big show, some more symbolic items like money in red envelopes, mandarin oranges, or gold balls. To make the event more interesting or challenging, some may require to peel off some mandarin oranges or pomelos, or even to light up firecrackers.

The lion dance has been around for more than a thousand years in the Chinese community, and there have been different stories on how it came about. From the legend of Buddhism, the lion was Manjusri's (a bodhisattva in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism) ride, and it was also brought in to China from India together with peacock, by one of the ancient Kings in China, Han Wu Di. Some said that the dance was inspired by some mask shows, whilst some others said it was originated from the military camp. But without a detailed record in the history, either can be true.

Southern-Style Lion Dance in Malaysia
Video courtesy of Dave

There are two types of Lion Dance styles: The Northern Lion and The Southern Lion. The Northern Lion is relatively smaller than the Southern style. It is made up of 2 performers in the larger lion gear or 1 performer in the smaller one. The person holding the lion head will be standing up whilst the one being the "body" will be bending over, wrapped in a full gear at all times. The Northern lion often do a lot of rolling about, jumping, hopping, and other actions such as walking on wires.

The Southern Lion (mainly from Guang Dong) on the other hand, has larger lion head. The first person will be moving the head along with his martial art-like actions, whilst the "body" is the second person covered in the colourfully decorated material extended from the head. The Southern Lion head comes with various mechanism: blinking eyes and mouth that can be opened and closed, for the dancer to "pluck the green". The blinking eyes are what adds interesting facial expressions to the Lion and the show.

When producing these Lions, the eyes are usually left blank until some reputable person is invited to paint the pupils onto the eyes, especially for important events. This is yet another symbolic gesture of denoting good fortune.

Since lion has been seen as the "king of wildlife" by many, the Lion Dance is said to generate certain power to rid the evil spirits and provide peace. The drum rhythm accompanying the Lion Dance also adds up to the evil-ridding effect.

The Lion Dance is the main event for many businesses when coming back from the Lunar New Year holiday. Some offices or shops will have the Lion Dance performed at a "fortunate time" (specially chosen hour) on their first day of reopening after the Lunar New Year. This is believed to be bringing harvesting profit in the coming year. To catch up with some of these Lion Dance performances, try going to some shopping malls in Asia from the 3rd day of Lunar New Year onwards, especially on the 15th day - The Chap Goh Mei.