The art of the lion dance encompasses both entertainment and ceremony. Combining sport and athleticism, musicality and traditional symbolism, the lion dance is a unique and revered cultural activity. The lion dance is also an integral part of classical Chinese martial art training reflects the highest levels of martial skill and understanding.
While its precise origin is still uncertain, early known evidence of lion dances is found recorded during the Three Kingdoms Period. By the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the lion dance had become popular in the Chinese military. Over time, the practice was spread to civilians and the lion dance became a folk tradition.
In May 446AD, according to the Chinese chronicle Luoyangjialanji, a military commander named Tan Hu Zhi from Jiaozhou province attacked the region of Lin Yi. Lin Yi’s general, Wang Fan Yang, created a tactic known as ‘elephant tactic’. The soldiers disguised themselves as elephants with masks and artificial bodies. They succeeded in turning back the attacking chariots and infantry of Tan Hu Zhi.
Psychological warfare was common practice at this time. A frontline general of Tan Hu Zhi, Zong Que, surmized that in nature, the lion is the ruler of all the animals. He battled the ‘elephants’ with a ‘lion tactic’ which worked with complete success, as the ‘lion’ soldiers drove the ‘elephants’ into an ambush.
The soldiers of Tan Hu Zhi were exhilarated. Their morale high, they celebrated their resounding victory, dancing as ‘lions’ in costume used in the attack. Henceforth, the lion dance became a source of entertainment and inspiration in the military.
Developed during the time of Emperor Zhou Wu Di, the dance was also called the ‘Five Cardinal Directions Dance of the Lion’. At this time, the lion was fashioned with decorative fur and fabric, and had two men inside the costume, manipulating facial expressions with strings and performing full body movements.
In the Chronicle of Music, written in the Tang Dynasty, the lion dance was referred to as the ‘Joy of Peace’.
Northern Lion Dance
According to folk tradition, the Northern lion dance originated in the Northern Wu period. It is said that people of Northern regions danced by holding up a carved wooden beast head, accompanied by the beat of drums.
The dance was introduced to the royal court by artists and musicians. Emperor Wu renamed it “Bei Wei Xiang Shi”, meaning the ‘Good Luck Lion of Northern Wei’.
The dance was performed to evoke and express homeland sentiments of the Wu people, who were at that time regarded as foreign invaders, and not accepted by the other regions of China.
In the Tang Dynasty, the poet Bai Ju Yi wrote of the beauty of the ‘Northern Lion’:
The ancient tradition of the Northern Lion Dance spread along the Silk Road, passed from generation to generation, from around 200 AD to the present.
Southern Lion Dance
The historical records of China show that the lion dance, at least in northern regions, was an integral part of its culture from an early time. However, the true origins of the Southern Lion Dance remain shrouded in mystery, with several popular myths persisting. The following are the most popular:
One legend states in ancient times, China was constantly plagued by famine, natural disaster, and disease. A beast, named “nian” after the crying sound it made, appeared in the land. The nian moved like the wind and was accompanied by thunder and lightning. The appearance of the nian coincided with a disappearance of disease and so the people believed that the nian was therefore a creature of good fortune and blessing.
During festive times, bamboo baskets and colourful fabrics were made to imitate the nian. Throughout the villages, people danced in homage to the nian in order to expel evil spirits and bring good luck.
Generations later, people came to regard the good fortune nian as the Xiang Shi, or ‘Good Luck Lion’.
Because the nian ate green vegetables, families would hang some greens high above their door for the nian to enjoy. The act of picking the greens became known as cai qing. By accepting the offering of greens, the lion blessed the home and people. The cai qing, or ‘getting the greens’ was the most exciting and important part of the lion dance.
During the lunar New Year, the nian’s visit held a double meaning as the word ‘nian’ sounds the same as the Chinese word for ‘year’. Thus the blessing of the New Year (or xin nian) is brought by the nian/lion of good fortune.
Beast of the Ming Dynasty
A legend of the early Ming Dynasty tells of a ferocious beast in Guangdong province that appeared every lunar New Year. It terrorized the countryside, destroyed crops and livestock and consumed all the produce of the entire year. The best hunters and fighters could not match the speed or strength of the beast which moved like the wind.
Before long, there was famine and people were starving. They feared that the beast would return on the following New Year. Desperate, the people decided to work together. They created a special frightening costume, imitating a protective lion. The colour red was hung everywhere to ward off evil. Because beasts are frightened by loud noises, they prepared firecrackers, drums and gongs.
On New Year’s eve, scouts saw the beast making its way toward the village. Everyone took their positions. As the beast entered the village gates, drums thundered and gongs crashed. The ‘lion’ charged out to challenge the beast. Already frightened from the noise and excitement, the sight of the lion, a creature even more ferocious than itself, the beast turned and fled from the village, never to be seen again. Ever since, lions have symbolized goodness and righteous spirit.
The lion dance became a celebrated tradition of Chinese New Year. In a gesture of appreciation and respect, people hang up greens on their front door for the lion to eat. Accompanying the greens is a red pocket of money for the dancers. This gesture is an essential part of welcoming the lion. The climax of the spectacular performance, the cai qing is a highly energized virtuosic display of strategy and skill.
Like a battle plan, the approach and solution of the qing puzzle, or layout of the greens, reveals the skill and knowledge of the dancers. The lion performs special steps as it approaches, investigates and obtains the greens. The puzzle must be properly solved to yield symbolic good fortune. Cai qing strategies normally fall into one of four categories: Ground Puzzle, High or Aerial Puzzle, Water Puzzle and Battle Array Puzzle.
Secret Societies, Rebellion and Intrigue
In the Qing Dynasty, the ruling Manchurians were a northern warring nation that overthrew the Han rulers of the Ming Dynasty. Viewed as foreign enemies who led an unfair and corrupt government, several events took place during this period that had negative effects on the economy and culture.
Resenting the oppression of the Manchu, Han patriots banded together, vowing to restore the Chinese government. “Overthrow the Qing, Restore the Ming” became the battle cry.
The Qing government were quick to suppress any uprisings, to the point of forbidding the practice of martial arts, destroying temples, military compounds, martial art training facilities, weaponry, and historical documents and texts. Those accused of being Han sympathizers, were often executed along with all their known relatives and associates. This oppression gave rise to collaboration of patriot martial artists and the development of new styles of kung fu. The rebels developed effective methods of communication and strategy, of which, the lion dance was a primary vehicle.
The lion head, coloured green, as a play on the word ‘Qing’, was attacked by, fought with and was slaughtered by a warrior. ‘Getting the greens’ (cai qing) also had a double meaning; evoking pro-Ming sentiments.
Through disguise, hidden martial technique, passing of secret messages and symbolic propaganda, the lion dance was used to encourage the revival of the Ming rule. As there is no evidence of the Southern Lion prior to the Qing Dynasty, this third story is likely the most accurate version of its true historical origin.