The lion dance is a form of traditional dance in China. It is normally operated by two dancers in a lion costume. With the loud music of gongs and drums, one dancer manipulates the lion's head while the other manipulates the lion's body, imitating a lion's various movements.
The lion dance is usually performed at Chinese traditional festivals such as Chinese New Year or important occasions such as business opening events.
Lion Dance Meaning
Known as the king of all animals, the lion symbolizes power. As China is generally free from lion infestation, the lion has a good impression on Chinese people. People take it as a symbol of good fortune and believe it can drive away evils. That's why many Chinese mansions have two stone lions at the entrance.
Chinese people were not satisfied with the static image of the lion standing on the gates and eaves, they wanted the lion to come alive. Therefore, people created a dance that simulated the lion's behavior, and it later developed into a unique art of the Chinese culture.
Lion Dance Costume
The lion dance costume consists of two parts, the lion head, and the lion body.
Covered with sandpaper and gauze, the lion head is mainly made of bamboo frame or wood. As the head is usually oversized, it can weigh up to 5 kg.
Covered with artificial fur, the lion's body is made of colored cloth. Dancers usually wear fur pants and shoes that are the same color as their tops.
Lion Dance History
Although Chinese lion dance has a long history, opinions about the origin of this art are widely divided. We can only find some clues from various records, which include ancient legends.
The most widely spread saying is that the lion dance was originated outside of China from the Western Regions (now Central Asia) in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD).
There was no actual lion in ancient China. The lion, like a dragon, phoenix, and unicorn, is just a mythical creature. During the Han Dynasty, the pioneer of the Silk Road, Zhang Qian, brought a real lion as a tribute to Central Plains (ancient China) from Western Regions. At that time, people imitated the appearance and movements of lions as entertainment.
Till the Three Kingdoms period (220 - 280 AD), the acting developed into lion dance.
In Buddhist culture, the lion is the personal mount ridden for Manjusri Bodhisattva. With the upsurge in the development of Buddhism, lion dance became popular in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386 – 589 AD).
In the Tang Dynasty, the lion dance became a large dance performance in court. During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) the lion dance was commonly performed in traditional festivals.
Lion Dance Types
There are two main types of lion dance in China, northern lion dance and southern lion dance. Different lion dance types can be identified from performance styles and costumes.
Northern Lion Dance (北狮 běi shī)
The northern lion dance is popular in northern China such as in Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi.
Compared with the martial style of the southern lion dance, the northern lion dance is more playful as its performance style emphasizes the mimic of the lion's character and behavior.
A common lion dance performance in northern styles usually appears as a family, with two large "adult" lions and a pair of small "young lions". The young lions tease the adult lions, and the adult lion makes fun of the young, it shows the happiness of the family.
The costume of the northern lion dance includes a gold-painted wooden head with shaggy red and yellow hair and colorful pants with fur.
Southern Lion Dance (南狮 nán shī)
Southern lion dance originated from Guangdong Province. It is popular in southern China and Southeast Asia.
The performance style of the southern lion dance is focused on acrobatics and energetic movements. A common lion dance performance in southern styles is 采青 cǎi qīng (eating romaine lettuce). The lion dancers will stand on thick wooden stakes to climb high and pick the romaine lettuce. It's a great test of the performer's balance and leg strength.
The costume of the southern lion dance includes a bamboo-made head with gauze and paper, durable layered cloth with fur.
Spend a New Year in China
Visiting China during the Chinese New Year period, you will see the streets filled with lanterns and Spring Festival rhymes and riddles, representing good luck, to show people's happiness. From jungle-covered mountains to modern metropolises to ancient cities, the New Year brings all of China together, seeing it for yourself is an unforgettable experience.