Ask any naturalist and he will likely tell you there are no lions in China.
Ask any toddler and his eyes will light with the assurance of having seen the lions dancing in the streets.
Whether known as the mythic Tsou-yu of the Shih-ching (the Book of Odes) which eats no living thing or the equally mysterious but more ancient Suan-ni, the lion, unicorn, bird, monster captured the hearts of the Chinese and guarded their temple doors from the Han dynasty on.
Buddhist lions, tamed and presented at court, the “Nien” (or New Year) beast named for the sound it made, the Black lion of the T’ang, the Patriotic anti-Ch’ing lion and the lion of Yueh-chih sent as tribute to the Han emperor are some of the species of Chinese lions that are presented as they originally appeared in history and as they spread across the globe.
The Chinese Lion Dance, as we know it today, has a continuous history of some one thousand years.
It founds its origin in a Kung Fu fight dance form during the territorial quarrels between the farmers and the warriors.
The first record of the performance of an early and more primitive form of Lion Dance dates back to the early Ch’in and Han dynasties.
This performance took place in the palace grounds of Shang-lin Park and is evidence that the vast and prosperous Han court created the milieu in which the Chinese Lion Dance took shape and developed.
These were later incorporated as a folk dance with the skills and techniques of the martial arts which have given rise to the modern Lion Dance.
During the Sui-T’ang periods, the Lion Dance was introduced to Japan via Korea where the ancient dance form has been religiously preserved.
In addition, these transmitted dances were brought into Japanese rituals and ceremonies which in turn influenced their folk dance, classical dances and even No dram and Kabuki.
In addition, to these two major East Asian nations, the Lion Dance was transmitted to Tibet, Okinawa (Ryukyu Islands) and throughout Southeast Asia.
Besides, the spread out of the Lion Dance by Chinese migrants made it world-know.
From its deep and far-reaching influence, it will be apparent that in the lives of Asian peoples, especially the Chinese, scarcely anything approaches the Lion Dance in importance.
Nowadays, it is usually performed in the festivities as the Chinese New Year, the opening of restaurants or the weddings, because it brings Luck, Happiness, Prosperity and keeps away the evil spirit. The lion is at the same time a symbol of strength, courage and wisdom.
The animal is generally represented by two persons draped by a false skin of lion. The first one holds the head and the other one, from behind, bends forward and holds his or her companion by the belt.
When the lion comes on stage, one or two young boys or girls try to seduce the animal with an embroidered ball as bait. Driven by this offer, the lion jumps and tries to seize the ball in its enormous jaws and imitates miscellaneous the other movements as the real lion.
The Lion Dance allies two different styles: the grace and the vigor.
The first one expresses the humor, the spirit and the jollity of the lion by the delicacy in the way of listening to, of blowing, of flashing eyes and to scratch itself. The second translates the strength and the fighting spirit of the king of animals.
Another type of the dance is the one of the «lion activated by hand. » The body of the animal is formed with circles of bamboo, and one or two dancers liven up it with one stick supporting the head and the other one the backside. The lion makes very lively movements.
The third variety, the call up «lion of the bench", asks for two performers. The body of the lion is constituted by a bench, endowed with the head on one of its ends. Both players hold each two legs of the bench. The lion executes most surprising movements from the bottom up or from top to bottom.
In China, the Lion Dance varies according to the region. For example, in Beijing the movements of the head are emphasized.
Dockers of Hubei province, execute another type of Lion Dance, very magnificent, which consists «to pass under superimposed tables." Five tables are placed the one on the other, and the lion passes under them one by one, from the bottom up. From the top, more than three meters high from the ground, it jumps abruptly underneath, in the big fear of the spectators. And after a roll on the ground, it gets up and continues to dance.
There is another very funny kind of demonstration, in Southern China. Before the beginning of the representation, one of the spectators hangs on a perch of eight meters high, as a temptation, a present wrapped in a red package with a bouquet of vegetables at the end. In drum roll and beatings of gong, the animal begins to climb a human ladder and opens its big jaws and swallows its present in the middle of the audience ovation and in a crackling of firecrackers.
The Lion Dance is a cultural link to the long history of China.
It is also an enlightenment for the Chinese to appreciate their cultural heritage and high civilization providing motivation to set forth to conquer new goals.