Lion dance



The lion dance is a pugilistic performance dating back to more than 1,500 years.1 Its performance during auspicious occasions, such as the launch of new businesses and shops, is believed to bring good fortune and wealth. The lion dance is also performed during the Chinese New Year (CNY) because of its association with the legends of Nian, a bestial creature that was frightened off by villagers loudly banging on drums on the eve of CNY.

Legends
Nian

According to legend, on the eve of every CNY, an unknown animal would destroy the fields, crops and animals belonging to the farmers of a village in China.3 The villagers could not identify the beast and named it Nian, which came to mean “year” in Chinese.4 To put a stop to the ravaging, the villagers made a model of the animal out of bamboo and paper, which was manipulated by two men, accompanied by the loud beating of instruments.5 According to another version of this legend, the villagers made a model of a lion out of bamboo and cloth after discovering that Nian was afraid of lions, and accompanied it with the loud beating of pots and pans. They waited for Nian on the eve of CNY, and succeeded in driving it away.6 Henceforth, the lion dance was performed annually on CNY with drums, cymbals and gongs.7 Nowadays, the lion dance is performed not only during CNY, but also for opening ceremonies, welcoming of important persons and other auspicious occasions.8

Military strategy
According to another story, Emperor Wen from the province of Song [during the North and South Dynasties (420–589 CE)] ordered Tan He, the governor of Jiao Zhou, to invade the territory of Lin-yi. Tan He was in a dilemma as to how his army could defeat the strong army of Lin-yi’s ruler Fan Yan, whose soldiers were armed with long spears and rode on elephants. In contrast, Tan He’s soldiers were less well-armed and had no elephants or other animals to ride on. He then came up with a brilliant plan: he would dress his men with cloth and rope to look like monstrous lions to frighten the elephants. The plan worked and from then on, the lion dance was performed in the military, gradually becoming part of civilian life.9

Description
The dance requires two persons, one to manipulate the papier-mâché head of the lion, and another to act as its hind legs; both are joined by a colourful cloth body.10 The lion head, weighing about 2 kg and costing approximately S$1,000, is often decorated with a red bow on its horn, silk pom-poms and bells. The fur trimming around the head is often made of sheepskin or rabbit fur, never synthetic material.11 Often the lion is led or teased by a big-headed doll.12 Aside from spectacular acrobatic stances by the lion, the performers’ coordination in bringing life-like movements to the lion adds to the success of the dance.13 A troupe of musicians accompanies the lion dancers, playing cymbals, gongs and drums.14 Every gesture, from the lifting of a leg to the fluttering of an eyelid, is choreographed to a particular beat in the music. Up to eight different stances are performed: happiness, anger, fright, merry-making, suspicion, drunkenness, sleep and wakefulness.15

The dance culminates in a skilful acrobatic act, after which the lion would snap at a sprig of lettuce and a hongbao (“red packet” containing money).16 Today, more and more challenging tasks face the lion dancers, such as peeling a pomelo open or pinning down a crab.17 Although traditionally dominated by young boys, nowadays in Singapore, even girls learn the art of lion dancing.18

Types of lion dances
There are two types of lion dances, namely the northern lion dance and southern lion dance, both differing in the appearance of the lion and performance style.19

Northern lion dance
The northern school, practised in Beijing, is more acrobatic, with the lion balancing on balls and see-saws while being led by a pugilist dressed as a “warrior” into performing stunts such as prancing and leaping.20 The northern lion usually has golden or red hairy fur.21

Southern lion dance
The southern style, which is more popularly performed in Singapore, originated in Guangdong, China. It involves a less hairy lion that is taunted by a big-headed clown and is traditionally performed outdoors. The caiqing, literally “plucking the green”, which refers to the acrobatic act of retrieving a sprig of lettuce from as high as three storeys, is achieved by using a pole or forming a human pyramid.22

The southern lion has a large head painted in bright colours. Its body, known as the lion blanket, is in the form of a cloth painted with stripes, which drapes over the dancers and allows them to move freely. In contrast, in the northern dance, which can be performed by a single dancer or two dancers sharing the same costume, the costume is covered with thick red or golden hair and only exposes the dancers’ legs, which are clad in trousers and boots of the same design.23   
 
Traditionally, the southern lion’s head is designed to personify the famous historical character, Liu Bei, or one of his five tiger generals from the Three Kingdoms era. A lion head with five colours or orange colour personifies Liu Bei; while a red lion head personifies Guan Yu; a black lion head personifies Zhang Fei; a green lion head personifies Zhao Yun; and a yellow lion head personifies Huang Zhong.24 In Heshan, southern China, there is another type of lion head – the foshan or huadan (Chinese opera singer) with a face that resembles an opera artiste.25

Christening ceremony
Dianjing, or “dotting the eyes”, is required to animate the lion before it can perform.26 A person of some social standing dots the lion head and body in eight key areas, with the following uttered as each element in the costume is marked:

Heavenly bell: “Excellence for all ages”
Eyes: “Vision bright and clear”
Nose: “Energy flows”
Mouth: “Roar in all directions”
Ears: “Hear up to 10,000 li
Horn: “Tower of strength”

Body: “The gods reside”
Tail: “Inexhaustible might”27



Author

Suchitthra Vasu



References

1. Tan, S. E. (1999, February 16). A lion roars to life in a dance. The Straits Times, p. 2; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). Battle for the lion’s share. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26; Vaz, S. (1986, February 2). Dances of joy and jubilation. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Red turns fear into joy. (1993, January 17). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Lions to bring good luck. (1984, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). Battle for the lion’s share. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Lim, S. (2002, February 9). The lion speaks. The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewpsperSG.
9. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Tan, S. E. (1999, February 16). A lion roars to life in a dance. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Real fur for heads, fake for paws. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Tan, S. E. (1999, February 16). A lion roars to life in a dance. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26; Lim, S. (2002, February 9). The lion speaks. The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Tan, S. E. (1999, February 16). A lion roars to life in a dance. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). Battle for the lion’s share. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Tan, S. E. (1999, February 16). A lion roars to life in a dance. The Straits Times, p. 2; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). Battle for the lion’s share. The Straits Times, p. 26; Hong, X. Y. (2006, January 26). The mane attraction. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Lim, S. (2002, February 9). The lion speaks. The Straits Times, p. 21; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Zhao, J. Z. (1993, January 28). The dance that helped the Song. The Straits Times, p. 4; Lion dance: History. (1998, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Lim, Y. L. (2012, January 9). Origins of the lion dance. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Real fur for heads, fake for paws. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Lighting the inner spirit. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 3; Tan, T., & Yeo, I. (2007, February 17). When the lion roars. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Lighting the inner spirit. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Dance
Arts>>Dance
Customs
Dance
Lion dance--Singapore
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Rites and ceremonies--Singapore
Chinese New Year--Singapore
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions