Chinese Lion Dance has a long history which began as a cultural interaction and trade between China and West Persia via the Silk Road. Cultural interaction grew through functions that took place in the royal palace welcoming guests from the west with dance and song. It is said that during these functions dancers often wore the masks of animals to perform and entertain guests. However since lions were not native to China, there were no costumes for lions. As traders traveling by way of the Silk Road brought lions as gifts together with lion trainers, the start of Lion Dance then began to take place in China. Other theories for forms of the dance stem from a combination of ritual folk dance and shamanism.
CHINESE NEW YEAR
Lion dance is customarily performed during festive occasions such as celebration of the Lunar New Year also known as the Spring Festival. This marks the first day of the first month of the Lunar Calendar. Just as Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the western world, Chinese New Years or the Lunar New Year, is the most significant Chinese Holiday. The festival lasts two weeks and China’s State Council designates three days as a national holiday. The Lunar New Year stands as a formal “grand opening” to all tasks, and is celebrated with great reverence and ardor. It is a special time for visiting relatives and friends enjoying the many colorful festivities to send off the old year and usher in the new year which is hoped to be rich in harvest, happiness and success. Here in the west Lion Dance is also performed for the Grand Openings of businesses and many civic events throughout the year.
Types of Lions
Lion dance is divided into two styles of lions. One is the Northern lion and the other is the Southern lion. The Southern lion itself is divided into two groups. The traditional lion is the 'Fut Shan lion'. These lions appear much more fierce looking with a reversed curve mouth and a pointed horn on its head. The other type of lion is ‘Hok Shan lion’ with a narrower head and a mouth more in the shape of a large duck bill.
There are other types of lions from other provinces, but due to a vast Diaspora and migration of Chinese from Guangdong (Kwangtung) province to many far away parts of the world, the Southern lions are the most common around the world today.
Traditionally, the lion head’s frame is made of rattan, wicker and bamboo. The shell is then layered with a gauze-like paper in a paper-mache fashion followed by layers of more gauze like paper. This step is repeated several times, then the head is painted with various colors and patterns that are symbolically auspicious. The head is then adorned with many ornaments and decorations.
Moving parts allow for the movement of eyelids, ears and mouth; all of which enable the dancer to animate and make the lion more life like.
The eyes are made of wood with a hole bored in the center and a piece glass/plastic covering it. Batteries, miniature light bulbs and an L.E.D., are inserted inside the eyes to give them life and a surreal glowing appearance. The lit eyes are not just for decorative purpose, but serve a symbolic function in warding off bad karma as well. Many cultures believe that evil omens like to hide in darkness.
WHAT IS CHINESE LION DANCE?
Lion dance dates back about 2000 years in Chinese history and there are many versions as to how lion dance arrived. One popular theory was that a beast terrorized a village in China. After awhile, the villagers were fed up with the beast thus they came together with an idea. The idea they have was to make a beast from paper mache and some noise making musical instrument like gongs, drums and cymbals to scare away the beast. The idea they had worked thus the villagers celebrated with firecrackers. Thus the belief of lion dancing is to bring good luck and prosperity while driving away the evil.
The lion dance has been part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years. The Chinese use the lion dance to spread all the good blessings of the Gods to the whole community.
The lion, a symbol of power, wisdom, and good fortune, chases away evil spirits and brings happiness, longevity, and good luck. Firecrackers, loud gongs and cymbals are used to assist in chasing away these evil spirits.
The lion dance performance generally depicts a lion stalking for food (lettuce) along with a 'lai see' (red packet) containing money which express the gratitude for the blessing. After eating the lettuce, the lion regurgitates the greens back to the business or audience which signifies the showering of good luck. Known as Choy Cheng (Stalking Food), to properly understand choy cheng, it is helpful to understand what the props and the actions of the lion represent.
Choy sounds similar to the Chinese words for vegetable and wealth, and the vegetables used in choy cheng also represent wealth. By taking and spitting out the vegetable, the lion is spreading wealth and good fortune to the person or business that the dance is being done for. As well as green vegetables, other food such as oranges, pomelo, tangerines, pineapples, apples, fish and crab can be used.
Chairs and tables used in the dance represent bridges or mountains, and buckets of water represent bodies of water such as streams, rivers, lakes, seas or oceans.
The lion never simply snatches the food and runs, instead each dance is an elaborate ritual, some of which are described below.
The lion dance is performed at many business locations during the Chinese Lunar New Year Celebrations for the lion brings prosperity and good luck to the businesses for the upcoming year. It is done not only during the Lunar New Year celebrations but also on special occasions, like grand openings, weddings and represents the hopes and aspirations of the Chinese people for all the good things life holds.
Lion Dance is a demanding, challenging performance art form, complete with martial art postures, dance movements, percussion rhythms and elaborate costumes, including the Lucky Lion and Happy Buddha.
Rich in meaning and dance content, teaching and training emphasizes fitness and performance skills from the classroom, to the playground, to the stage. A fun high energy form of exercise and ceremony, performers move to the beat of percussion drums, cymbals and gong. Two dancers perform under the Lion costume. One performs the lion head and one performs the lion’s body or tail; both perform together in movement as one.
Percussion rhythms that follow the Lion’s movements, require precision and unison. The use of loud percussion rhythms relate to the role of the lion in dispelling evil and bringing good luck. As an art form, lion dance re-creates things unseen and heard, giving form and substance to the intangible as one experiences the creative process at work.
The Lion is accompanied primarily by three main percussion instruments that consist of a drum, a gong, and cymbals. The Drum represents the Lions voice or roar and thus reflects its mood or emotion. A drummer sets the tone for the Lion, but with a good team, the drummer may follow if there is one Lion leading. Two lions and the drummer leads. Drumming rhythms and/or beats are not random. There are many set rhythms/beats and patterns that are utilized in a dance routine.
By playing a fast tempo the percussion players can invoke a mood of an excited lion. A loud rhythm may invoke the mood and feeling of an angry lion; while playing a softer rhythm may reflect a cautious or thinking lion. Softer, lower, slower rhythms might also reflect a sad lion to name a few moods. In Chinese culture, the drum has played an important part in military, civil and religious purposes as well as for music.
The drum skin of the drum, is often thought to be made of cowhide because of the translation of Chinese characters for the ox and such. In actuality the skin is traditionally made from a water buffalo and is coated with tung oil. Brass or iron nails hold the skin to the wooden frame. Bandings are used to keep the frames shape and tightness of the drum, while the same gauze like paper used on the Lion head, is pasted over the wooden frame. An enamel or lacquer is then applied to help contain the sound of the drum from leaking out through the cracks. This process may change over time as the advent of technology and other processes become available. To help fine-tune the drums there are wire tuning forks located inside the drum.