Lion Dance is a form of Chinese traditional dance that was created more than ten centuries ago (Chinese New Year Lion Dance par1). It involves the mimicry of a lion’s movements while adorning a lion costume and it is practiced in China and other Asian countries that share similar traditional practices and customs. The dance is usually performed during certain special occasions such as New Year festivals and other big occasions of critical importance such as cultural and religious festivals. It is also performed during events such as weddings and honoring of guests. The lion dance is usually performed using drums and gong instruments that act as accompaniments. In Chinese culture, the lion brings good luck, and therefore festivals that included the dance aim to bring good luck and scare away evil (Vasu par2).
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The dance originated in China more than a thousand years ago. In traditional Chinese culture, the lion was a mythical animal because lions were non-existent in the country (History of the Lion Dance par3). Lions were sent to Chinese emperors by traders to be allowed to conduct business in their territories. Only a few lions had been seen in ancient China before the emergence of the Han Dynasty. Later on, more lions emerge and because they were mythical in China, people were mesmerized by them and began to mimic their behavior and appearance during performances. These performances mimicking the actions of lions led to the creation of the lion dance in the Han Dynasty (History of the Lion Dance par4).
The Lion Dance became more popular with the spread of Buddhism in the Northern and Southern Dynasties and got to its peak during the Tang Dynasty. The rising popularity of the dance led to its embracement in Japan. In Japan, the dance was used in courts as a form of entertainment while in China it was used during celebrations. The dance later spread to Korea and Taiwan where it evolved into different styles but adopted similar symbolism (History of the Lion Dance par5).
There are two main styles of the Lion Dance namely the Southern Lion style and the Northern Lion style (Chinese New Year Lion Dance par3). These styles emerged as the dance evolved through the years and as it spread to other dynasties around China. Other styles emerged as the dance spread to other Asian countries.
The Northern Lion style
This style closely resembles martial arts and has two variations in which a young lion is mimicked by a young person and an adult lion is mimicked by two people (Green 42). Both performers wear costumes that resemble a lion. For instance, their lower bodies are adorned with trousers that resemble the color of the lion’s body. Their shoes are colored yellow and are resemble a lion’s claws. In the dance that the performers mimic an adult lion, one performer stands in the front and the other one behind the first performer with a bent waist to make movements easy. The first performer adorns the head of the lion and the other moves the body of the lion (Vasu par7).
The performers then mimic several movements that are common among lions such as jumping, climbing, rolling, and wrestling (Green 42). The Northern Lion Dance is more versatile than the southern lion dance and incorporates additional stunts such as lifts and balancing on elevated platforms. In other dances, Northern Lions can appear as families. In that case, the dance includes two large adult lions and two young lions. To get the resemblance of an adult lion, two performers adorn the costume to appear large (Ma and Cartier 88). In more varied Northern Lion dances, a character representing a warrior stands in front of the lions and leads them through the dance.
The Southern Lion style
This style originated from a region called Guangdong and is performed in pairs (Vasu par8). The performers wear lion costumes and do moves that are more characteristic of the lion as compared to the Northern dance. These actions include scratching, licking fur, and shaking the posterior end of the body (Green 44). The movements make the performance more entertaining and dramatic. The lion can also perform other moves such as playing with a ball. The Southern Lion is associated with a mythical legend known as Nian in Chinese ancient culture. Unlike the Northern Lion, it has a playful temperament.
The social component of the Lion Dance
The Lion Dance was usually performed during social events that were either cultural or religious. In many Asian countries, it is performed during the New Year Festival and other cultural, traditional, and religious festivals such as the performance of rituals (Ma and Cartier 88). Also, it is performed during events to open new businesses, marriage, and honorary ceremonies (Carstens 152). All these events are aimed at bringing people together and allowing them to socialize and celebrate their traditions and customs. In Japan, the dance is performed during Shinto festivals during which people gather to celebrate various religious rituals.
After the spread of the Lion Dance to other Asian countries, variations on how it is performed emerged. They include Vietnamese, Korean, Tibetan, Japanese, and Indonesian Lion dances (Carstens 152). The Japanese Lion Dance is used in traditional and religious festivals. The style is highly versatile because it comprises more than 9,000 variations depending on the region. Korean Lion Dance has two main variations that are performed on different occasions that include exorcism drama and masked drama.
Tibetan Lion Dance is performed during important celebrations such as New Year Festival (performed as a secular dance) and religious festivals (ritual dance). The Indonesian Lion Dance is very different from the original dance. However, the symbolism is similar even though it utilizes different forms from those used in China and other Asian countries.
Music, instruments, and costumes
The performance of Lion Dance involves music and the use of different musical instruments. Examples of instruments used during the dance include drums, gongs, and cymbals (Ma and Cartier 88). The drum is the main instrument used and the other two are used as accompaniments. The drum gives the main beat of the dance and movements are synchronized to it (Carstens 153). The drum is also used to emphasize certain movements or actions during the performance.
The main purposes of using cymbals and gongs are to scare away bad luck and make the dance emotional (Carstens 153). The instruments are played in a manner that synchronizes to the movements of the lion to create harmony. The aforementioned variations of the lion dance use different music and play their instruments differently. Each style plays a distinctive beat that is closely associated with people’s customs and traditions.
In contemporary society, the development of electronic instruments has made the lion dance more entertaining and adaptable. For instance, the music can be played from a portable mp3 player. Technological advancement has contributed greatly to the evolution of lion dance because it has eliminated the need to carry heavy musical instruments around while dancing. Costumes are one of the distinctive features of the lion dance. They are usually custom made to resemble a lion with certain colors used to represent various body parts.
The Lion Dance was used during the Three Kingdoms Period to represent the various struggles that the kingdoms went through in the process of fighting for power and uniting the warring regions. The yellow lion with white hair represents calmness, moderation, competence, and wisdom. The red lion with black hair represents skills and wisdom. The black lion with corresponding black hair or white hair represents strength, courage, and character.
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The colors used on the costumes represent various life or traditional aspects that are important to Chinese people. Yellow represents Earth, green represents wood, red represents fire, black represents water, and white represents metal (Carstens 156). In many costumes, the lion’s nose is usually green. Green is a representation of good luck, success, and the presence of divine intervention. Also, a mirror is attached to the lion’s forehead to scare away any evil spirit that may be residing among the people or that may be planning to attack the people.
Evolution of the Lion Dance
As mentioned earlier, the Lion Dance has evolved greatly since its creation. This evolution is primarily due to its spread to other cultures and the emergence of electronic instruments that have changed how it is performed. The presence of Chinese people in countries around the world has led to vast embracement of the dance and its subsequent evolution. In traditional China, the dance was performed as part of Chinese martial arts culture. It was performed during traditional and religious festivals. Its evolution has led to its adoption in competitions that aim to determine the dance with the best movements or performance. The versatility and agility of the ‘lion” are a core aspect of the strategy used to win in such competitions.
The Lion Dance is an ancient Chinese cultural dance that has evolved since its creation more than a thousand years ago during the Han dynasty. It involves the performance of moves and actions that mimic the behavior of lions while wearing costumes created to appear like lions. The dance is mainly used for social purposes during traditional and religious ceremonies. Its origin dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period during which the lion was only a mythical animal in Chinese folklore.
The first lions were seen in China when merchants presented them to Chinese emperors as gifts to be allowed to trade commodities in their territories. Afterward, people began to mimic their behaviors during performances. In China, it comprises two main styles namely the Southern Lion style and Northern Lion style. The dance has evolved significantly since its creation because of its embracement by other cultures and technological advancements. In contemporary society, the dance is performed in competitions. The drum, cymbals, and gongs are the major instruments used during performances.
Carstens, Sharon. Histories, Cultures, Identities: Studies in Malaysian Chinese Worlds. New York: NUS Press, 2005. Print.
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Ma, Laurence, and Carolyn Cartier. The Chinese Diaspora: Space, Place, Mobility, and Identity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.
Vasu, Suchitthra. Lion Dance. n.d. Web.