Every Chinese New Year we can watch the parades and a lot of us spot groups around some lions dancing from one to another business, going in and out. Often, they also perform kung fu forms outside the same locations. Some might have been asked: Why are they doing this? And why is it that kung fu schools perform that kind of ritual every year?
In Chinese culture, we can also find dragon dance. But that will be the topic for another article. The lion dance is easily to catch, when you see two people performing, one at the head and another at the tail of a lion, that’s lion dance.
A short history of lion dance
Historically it has been an old tradition in China for dancers to be performing with animal or mythical beast masks. In existing texts, back from the Qin (221 to 206 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD) dynasty we can find records about dancers performing a sort of exorcism rituals wearing not just bearskin masks, but also performing as fish, dragons or phoenixes.
During the Tang dynasty (618–907) lion dance was already a common ritual and it is believed that the dance moved from a local tradition to a ritual which included Buddhist symbolism.
At this time you could already distinguish between oficial lion dance at the court, which was also called the “Lion Dance of the Five Directions” or “Great Peace Music” and the lion dance performed by Non-Han people on the countryside. In the eighth century it already reach Japan and was integrated into the Zen Buddhism.
Chasing the ghosts
In China it is believed that a lion represent superiority, courage and stability what helps to cast away ghosts, evil spirits or even monsters. To boost this effect it is the traditional belief that loud noises as from firecrackers help. At the head of each lion you can find a mirror which expel negative energy and bad spirits. The bad spirit would be frightened to watch itself in the mirror.
Even today lion dance is a ritual performed to get the old ghosts from the year out and to start the new year fresh and clean. That´s why Chinese business are keen to have lion dancers coming in and clean up their spaces so they can have a successful year in their trade. It is the belief that the business which were visited by a lion will have very good luck throughout the year.
The group around the lions
Normally the lions are moving to the beat and music which comes from the drum player, the cymbals and a gong. The cymbals and the gong follow the drum. The drum player is directing the dancers and the performers. Each lion needs two persons, but if it is in a parade there will be always one person to fill in, so the other can get some rest. Besides the music and the lions you will see people with weapons or even flags who support the group. To have enough water to drink will be important too. Obviously every school has its own sound.
The lion dancers will perform choreographies, every school a different one, and bring the lion to live. In the head there are tools to move mouth and ears to make it look more vivid. In the tail you will find something to move the tail. In a traditional kung fu school every student would learn all the different stations, but the head and the drum players will represent the most experienced students. Another important figure is the funny “Buddha” or uncle who wears a fan and entertains everyone. He helps the lion dancers to coordinate but also shows the crowd how to approach a lion because it is believed to be good luck to touch the head of a lion. Besides that the master can have a guan do, a large weapon, to cut of the bad spirits before the lions enter a business.
What are they doing exactly?
In a city with temples the lion dance would start and end at the temple where the lion pays his respects to the different deities. Then they would start they procession through the streets to bring joy and happiness to the people. At a business the group would line up outside and first start with a choreography with vows. Outside the business owner will have prepared a lettuce for the “Cai Qing”, the picking the green ceremony. The lettuce will be on a chair or maybe hanging from the roof. The main lion or all of them will get a lettuce and then “chew” it. To do so the lion would lay down a bit and the music will start a crescendo. Then the lion will “spit” the parts all over the place, which is a symbolic blessing of the location through the lion. To get “spit” from the lion is good luck, so don't go too far away! Then the lions get into the location and vow in front of the shrine. If it´s a Buddha shrine they vow three times and if it´s a shrine with a Kuang Kung statue they would vow eight times.
Out again, the dancers will bring their lions to sleep and perform some kung fu forms. My Sifu says that the beauty of the lions awakes the bad spirits and the strengths of the kung fu kicks them out and destroys them. The prize for the lion hangs in a red envelope from the roof and contains normally money. Oranges or mandarins, as a symbol of prosperity, are welcomed gifts for the lion dancer, too. At the end the lions awake again, do their choreography again and leave all together. The business is clean of bad spirits and ready to have a prosper year.
If you have a Chinatown or Kung Fu schools who perform lion dance in your town, check them out at Chinese New Year, you won’t regret it. It is a nice and cultural experience.