The Lion Roars: Origins of the Ancient Art of Lion Dancing
by Diana Kwok
The lion is considered an animal of high nobility and remains a symbol of happiness, courage, prosperity, and good luck in ancient China. The tradition of lion dancing has been passed down through the generations to ward off evil spirits. As the legends were passed by word of mouth, there are many different stories as to how the lion dances came into being. Most can be entitled Kung-fu Master and the Lion, The Paper Beast, The Lion and the Nian, The Emperor’s Dream, The Lion Saves an Emperor, The Lion Breaks the Elephant Formation, and The Death of the Lion. This article will delve into the above-mentioned lion dances, exploring their origins and deeper meanings.
The lion dance can be traced back to China’s Han dynasty (205 B.C. to 220 A.D.), when the first lions in Chinese history were sent as gifts to the emperor. Historians believe these gifts were sent in exchange for the privilege of bartering with merchants on the Silk Road. It was not until during the Tang dynasty (716-907 A.D.), however, that the lion dance became a popular ritual, which was believed to bring good luck and ward off evil. It is said to have begun when a lion rampaged through a small village, harming adults, children, and animals alike. No one dared to challenge the lion, except a kung-fu master who had learned of the villagers’ predicament. He caught up with the lion several times, but was never able to imprison him. He rallied the villagers by teaching them martial arts so that they might defeat the lion. After a few months, the group set out to take vengeance on the lion. They found the lion in the mountains, where the teacher and pupils defeated it in a vicious battle. In order to celebrate this grand occasion, the villagers composed the lion dance.
One of the most popular stories concerning the origins of the lion dance is also based in a village. Everyday, so the story goes, a beast romped through the village destroying what few belongings the villagers owned. As the days wore on, the people gathered together and decided to do something about this terrorization. They devised a plan to make their own “beast” in order to scare away the real one. They pieced together a rough resemblance of the beast and gathered some instruments (most likely, it was pots and pans) to scare him away. After a frightful and deafeningly loud encounter, the villagers celebrated their victory with firecrackers.
A similar version is The Lion and the Nian (?—meaning “year” in Chinese). This time, there was a terrible monster called Nian that terrorized the villagers. When China’s emperor became aware of the monster’s threat, he immediately sent orders for a wise man to resolve the crisis. The wise man first fought alongside the lion, but the lion was injured. He then challenged the monster to defeat other malevolent creatures that roamed the surface of the Earth who actually stood a chance against him. Nian accepted the challenge, taking a year to vanquish all the other monsters of the Earth before returning to bully mankind. The day he returned, he was petrified to find the children playing with firecrackers. When the villagers discovered the monster’s fear of firecrackers, they made an imitation lion and gathered firecrackers to scare Nian away. To this day, the lion dance and firecrackers have been a symbol of peace used on New Year’s Day to fend off Nian, the last malicious monster left on Earth.
In yet another interpretation, Qianlong (1736-1796), the third emperor in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), had a dream during a trip to Jiang Nan, south of the Yangtze River. He dreamt that, while he was standing alone, a mysterious creature appeared by his side. The horned creature stared at the emperor and left as suddenly as it had materialized. Upon waking in the morning, the emperor questioned his advisors regarding the interpretation of his dream. Everyone decided that this creature had come to show the emperor that it was of the same rank as the emperor. It thus earned the title “King of Animals”.
The Lion Saves an Emperor is similar to the last version. It is said that during the Tang dynasty, an emperor had a dream in which he lost track of his army. He was without food or water, and would have lost hope had it not been for a creature that emerged from the darkness to guide his way back to the palace. The next day, the emperor consulted his circle of ministers and was informed that this creature was called a lion, a creature not found in China at the time. His ministers were then ordered to construct a model so that the emperor could view it when he was awake.
Lin Yi, a country located in the area of Laos and Burma, was the target of General Zhong Yue of the Sung dynasty. He was stalled for a bit by the formidable “Elephant formation” of the Lin Yi army, but after some thinking he came up with a plan. He had heard that all animals, great or small, feared the lion. He ordered the creation of imitation lions and placed the replicas on the front line. When the elephants saw the look-alikes, they fled. This is how Lin Yi fell into the hands of the Sung army.
One of the most appealing versions of the story centers on the rebirth of a heavenly lion. The lion was a naughty one, often the center of attention, as he liked to play practical jokes on practically anybody. One day, he went too far and infuriated the Jade Emperor himself. In a moment of rashness, the emperor severed the lion’s head from its body and threw it into a ditch to rot. When the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Yin, discovered the lion, she pitied him. Kwan Yin brought the lion back to life and embellished it with a few instruments against evil. The red ribbon along its spine, the horns, and the mirrors are all gifts from Kwan Yin.
The northern style lion dancing is also called the Peking lion dance. Rooted in Beijing Opera, it utilizes the kung fu styles of northern China, characterized by swinging arcs with the arms and legs to create a long flowing motion. Thus, it requires more aesthetic martial arts skills and acrobatic movements than the Southern lion dance. The Peking lion is mangier than the southern lion as it possesses a full body of yellow and red fur drooping like a weeping willow. The head is smaller, golden colored, and not as flexible as the southern lion’s.
The northern lion usually operate in groups of at least three. Walking on a large moving ball or stealthily crossing a high wire are just two of the many antics the lion has up his sleeve. Generally, the lion is escorted by a woman or boy who attempts to tame him. This is customarily accomplished by tantalizing the lion with a small ball. The ball is inched out of the lion’s reach while the lion tamer requests execution of more challenging acrobatic feats. Due to the difficulty of the northern style, many dancers choose to learn the techniques of the southern lion.
The southern, or Cantonese, lion dance uses southern styles of gung-fu. Most are characterized by short kicks, low stances, and upper body techniques. The lion’s head is crafted from paper máche and a wooden framework to yield a final product weighing approximately 30 to 40 pounds. The lion’s body is made of lengthy material composed of different colors – depending on the lion – connected to the lion’s head. This is the area where one person acts as the head while another takes up the rear.
There are two types of lions: the old (wise through experience) and the young (impulsive and assertive) type. Old lions, complete with a long white beard, symbolize an established martial arts school and younger lions sporting a short black beard tend to be used by schools new to a given area. Both lions perform tricks such as jumping from poles, climbing on tables and chairs, and standing on shoulders. The dance steps are very exaggerated and thought-out. The instruments, a drum, gong, and cymbals, follow the lion’s steps according to a deliberate rhythm.
Another style was developed when the Manchus took control of the Chinese government around 1644 and formed the Qing dynasty. This lion was used to harbor weapons and act as a reason to be traveling around the country. It was also used to keep in touch with other loyalists of the Ming dynasty. The Satin-like face of the green lion (Fighting Lion) mirrored the brutality of the Qing militia. With eyebrows structured from steel swords and a penetrating gaze, the lion’s face symbolized an impossible mission: defeating the Manchus while reviving the Ming dynasty. Thus, when the dance was performed, the ability to defeat the green lion meant that the Manchus were toppled from their throne.
Today the lion dance remains a source of popular entertainment. Although it may seem to be merely a boisterous gathering, there is a rich historical and cultural heritage behind the dance. It is an art that ushers in the New Year to bring health, luck, and prosperity to all. So let these creatures of imagination strike fear into demons, and experience a phenomenon fit for emperors.
Diana Kwok (‘08) is a first year student at Brandeis University.
FACT BOX: “Of the 56 ethnic groups in China, the Hui and Manchu use the same languages as Han people, while the rest of the groups have their own spoken and written languages.” Source: http://www.china.org.cn/e-changshi/
Brandeis Lion Dance Troupe performs the Southern Lion Dance style (both)