The lion dance is categorized into Southern and Northern styles.

Northern Lion

Lions are differentiated on the basis of physical appearance, ornamentation, culture and custom, which also affect the dancing steps. The Northern ‘Peking’ Lion comes from the professional performance-oriented opera and acrobatic schools. This lion is energetic, active and lively, using many jumping techniques.

The costume is full body, designed to look like a real lion, covering the dancers’ legs and lower torso in shaggy yellow and orange brightly coloured fur. The dancers wear special shoes, designed to look like the clawed paws of the lion. The golden face of the lion looks like the Peking Fu Dog.

The adult northern lion is often seen with a baby cub, played by a single person. The lions play with another team member with good flexibility and gymnastics skill, who takes the role of a warrior, holding a silk covered wicker ball. This person acts as a guide or lion tamer, interacting with the lion, facilitating the transition from chapter to chapter of the lion dance in exciting style. Special tricks performed by the northern lion include climbing to heights, crossing a gap on a tight wire, walking on a large ball, and rolling a ball across the teeter-totter.

Southern Lion

The Southern Xing Shi (Waking) Lion, evolved from kung fu schools, is fierce and powerful. It is the lion most frequently seen in public performances and associated with Chinese New Year celebrations.

While the Cantonese lion is the most famous, other popular Southern Lion types are the Heshan, Fushan and Jigong Lions.

The Southern Lion design includes more mythical elements than its Northern counterpart. It has as a weighty head, single horn, moveable eyes, ears, and mouth, forehead mirror, and auspicious decoration.

The tail is open-body type, akin to a large cape worn across the dancer’s back, made from brightly-coloured fabric and often containing bells and shiny coin-like discs. Across the lion’s nape is the name of the school the lion represents.

The head and tail performers must work closely to execute each movement smoothly and effectively. While the Northern Lion focuses heavily on acrobatic skills, the design of the Southern lion lends itself to the emphasis on the expression of emotions.

Southern Lion Colours

Within the Southern Lion Types, there are three symbolic colours, representing heroic figures in Chinese history; sworn kung fu brothers of the Three Kingdoms Period. King Liu Bei, a courageous warlord who was humble, compassionate, generous, and wise, is represented by the multi-colour or yellow lion. With refined movements, and a long white beard, this is the most senior lion. Because of its high rank, the Liu Bei Lion is most commonly seen at auspicious occasions.

The red-faced lion with the black beard is the Guan Gong Lion, representing the famous general and judge, known for his martial skill, moral virtue and righteousness. The patron saint of Chinese martial arts, the statue of General Guan stands in every traditional kung fu school, Chinese police station, school, and business, serving as a reminder of the ethics of kung fu. Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Humility, Perseverance, Loyalty, Justice, Courage…important lessons for the individual, family and country.

The black lion with the shorter black beard and black horn, represents the courageous and impetuous General Zhang Fei, who stood with unwavering loyalty beside Liu and Guan. This lion, the youngest, is a fierce and strong warrior, ready to spring to battle at a moments notice.

There is a misconception that the black lion is an inauspicious omen of misfortune and bad luck, however this is based on ignorance and lack of understanding. In reality, all black, red and yellow lions stand out by their assertive fighting spirits and among these, the black is the most protective and capable. Thus, the black Zhang Fei Lion is commonly played by a highly skilled kung fu master who is capable of accepting real combat challenges, in or out of the lion.

Another traditional demarcation of Southern lion character is the colour and length of the beard and eyebrow fur locks. A lion with white, long beard and brows was the sign of a highly respected master, or the founder of a martial art style. A lion with black, long brows and beard was a strong young martial arts master. Finally, a lion sporting short black brows and beard indicated a young but highly aggressive lion and might be played by an aggressive, and possibly arrogant individual.

The spirit and integrity of these three heroic figures have long been an inspiring example to all Chinese martial artists. It is essential that the dancers’ movements are stylistically consistent with the character of their lion.

Recent Developments

A new trend in lion dancing incorporates both Northern and Southern elements. Although lion dance is a Chinese tradition, the art has evolved since the early 1980’s. Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, combined with Chinese culture to create a melting pot lion dance structure.

The Southern lion was used as the basis, its tail shortened and more fur added. New colours, chosen for their visual appeal rather than traditional meaning, were created. Dancers began to incorporate difficult acrobatic manoeuvres and the dance, changing from its largely improvisational nature, became highly choreographed. The phrase, “Southern Lion with Northern Steps” describes this visually stunning approach, geared toward performance aesthetics and competition.

In addition to the Northern and Southern Style Lion Dances, other popular lion dances include those of minority cultures in China, such as the Fuzhou Green-Faced Lion and Hunan’s Lion Dance; a mixture of Northern and Southern styles. Lion Dancing is further classified into scholarly, martial and ground movement types. Most dances use both scholarly and martial movements.