History and tradition

Lion's Dance

Lion’s dance it’s a ritual dance used in the whole East in different occasions of social life topropitiate good wishes and luck.

In China in occasion of the Chinese New Year thousands of lions and dragons dance on the streets, parks, restaurants, hotels and museums as sign of a good wish and to greet a new rich and lucky year, involving kids and adults that draw positive energy and harmony from touching and playing with the mythical Lions and Dragons.

It has its roots in the most ancient oriental culture; the legends that identifies the Lion originally as an animal that saves villages filled with monsters and disgraces, then as synonymous of aboundance, wellness, luck and prosperity, enough to raise it, along with the Dragon, as the animal symbol of China.


Mou Si in cantonese

Wu Shi Zi in mandarin

It is divided into northern dance and southern dance, the latter being more linked to the martial world.

Also known as Nan Si (southern lion) or Xing Si (lion expressing power). The birth of the dance belongs to the oldest historical period, during the invasions of the barbarian populations, together with the concept of Xing Si, a name earned by the Chinese who fought very valiantly.

Many stories or legends developed around the origin of the lion dance, often linked to the rural need to propitiate crops or to the need to exorcise famines, diseases and again to draw the attention of supernatural entities to receive favors and fortune. We try to treat the various legends and historical events in a simple way, detaching the various branches of the myth of the Lion, to attempt an agile, yet significant elaboration:

– It is said that in the mists of time during a famine, a pestilential disease caused the death of thousands of individuals; during the plague a gigantic animal appeared, with a horn on top of its head which shook the earth with its heavy tread. Its noisy passage annihilated evil and negative influences, restoring life and health. The Chinese understood that the “benevolent monster” that appeared in conjunction with the beginning of the new year was sent by the Gods, which is why the lion dance has always been considered a symbol of good luck, not only during celebrations of the new year.

Among the most popular there is the one attributed to the famine that has afflicted the Chinese territory for many centuries. In fact, it is said that one night the Emperor dreamed of a strange creature with the power to bring good luck and drive away evil from the earth, so the next morning he ordered his servants to build a copy of the creature that he himself had dreamed of and to make it tour the country. Thus it was that prosperity returned.

– An ancient Chinese legend tells that in the city of Canton, on the last day of the year, a monster would appear and devour the farmers’ vegetables and sometimes even attack men and animals. Thinking it was a deity, the inhabitants built a mask similar to the monster’s head and danced to pay him honors and best wishes, but he got scared and never returned. Since then, dance has been celebrated every end of the year as a wish for a good year.

– Another story tells that in ancient times some Chinese villages under the constant threat of local bandits, disguised as demonic spirits, frightened the locals forcing them to run away, in order to plunder their homes. The inhabitants of these areas created dragons and lions, made of bamboo, wood and fabrics to scare these “fearsome” spirits, with the noise of drums, gongs and other objects.

– Lions are not native of China, it is thought they came as a tale or legend via the famous Silk Road. The lion dance is dated to the Han Dynasty (205-220 AD) and the height of the Tang Dynasty (716-907 AD). It was particularly performed during religious holidays. During the following dynasties the predecessor emperors named these masks Pak Hai Soi Si (Soi means good luck, or also long life, Si lion) and from that moment all the masks of folk dances had the shape of a lion. During the Sung dynasty the name was shortened to Pak si.

– Ch’ing period in China, end of 1600 AD, during the destabilization of the Ming dynasty by the Ching and the establishment of the new dynasty. Secret aggregations were formed among the citizens, led by Kung Fu masters. In an attempt to restore power to the Ming, the “secret sects” organized themselves in southern China in various ways to meet. During this period the dance was structured to propagate the revolt through the allegorical dance; this is how the practice of the southern lion dance became an integral part of Kung fu, as it is represented today.

Both for legend and for historical reasons, the Lion’s Dance became more and more rooted in the folk culture of the Chinese people and was inserted as a ceremonial in the celebrations at court and along the streets.

Technically two athletes are required:

– one handles the upper body, controlling the front legs, the movement of the head, eyes and mouth;

– the other has a rather limited view, takes care of the body and the tail and is hooked to the first, controls the movements of the hind legs and pelvis and must be able to mimic with the movements of the body, the attitudes performed by the head.

The dance is accompanied by background music including a drum, two cymbals and a gong. The Drum is very important throughout the performance because it marks the rhythm and imposes the movements that the lion will have to perform. The cymbal player stands next to the drum with his face turned towards the musician who keeps his gaze attentively on the lion.

Drum, wooden frame with wet bovine skin, which stretches with drying, acquiring the characteristic sound that recalls the same ancient role of the orders given to the troops on the battlefield. The sound emitted by the drum corresponds to the animal’s heart rate and is always accompanied by a brass gong and various cymbals.

A particular and important rite is Baptism.

A lion can dance only after having undergone the “awakening” ritual. The ritual is performed by the Master, who offers the lion a part of his personality and strength, drawing particular ideograms on his forehead, marking the ears, tongue and eyes with a small brush and red color. The dancing lion wakes up to the sound of the drum, salutes the school flag, relaxes, cleans himself, observes, and then begins his first dance in front of the Master.

Often the lion is guided by an acrobat or by the tamer holding a silk flower or a fan with which he guides the lion in his dance and mocks it by increasing its state of excitement; for some the Buddha impersonates the tamer of the Lion.

The traditional dance begins with the sleeping Lion who wakes up to find himself in front of a multitude of people. After the initial surprise and amazement, he bows down and begins to dance looking for his food (usually vegetables); he observes the obstacles, analyzes the route and moving circumspectly and with various attempts, decides to reach his meal even if in a difficult position. Usually the vegetables are placed in a high place (perhaps a pole) for the person controlling the rear of the Lion to be forced to stand up by lifting his mate to the top.

The scene of the Lion spitting his food brings good luck and is followed immediately by fireworks, at this point the Lion plays with the audience, bows to greet and introduces his dancers leaving the scenes.

The lion eats the salad, Chai ch’in, because it is considered precious (the Chinese character for salad: ch’in has the very similar pronunciation of the character money: ch’ain); it is offered to the lion by placing it outside the door of the house; money is often offered, especially when the lion enters houses and shops with its dance. Since the lion is a symbol of luck and prosperity, this offering is intended to attract good luck.

The technical characteristics of the Lion dance are complicated due to the athletic structure required, both on the ground and on the poles (acrobatic dance) and multiple, as it is necessary to represent the expressions, or the states of mind, of the lion, which are:

  • Content Lion, who appreciates;
  • Angry;
  • Afraid;
  • Happy;
  • Drunk, dazed;
  • Asleep, sleepwalking;
  • Suspicious, intrigued;
  • Proud and mighty.

These are the eight basic expressions or moods that must always be displayed during a dance performed in the traditional way.

Then there is the physical movement of the lion. The main position of the legs is the Ma Bo. Furthermore, the two people who give life to the lion must have a low position structured so as not to have humps on the back, furthermore it is essential that the expression is connected with physical movement: the lion must look, first still, then approach to sniff, gets down, runs, gets up, somersaults, eats, moves its mouth when it licks, all perfectly synchronized. The movement must express fa jing. During the execution of the dance, the movements of the lion must respect some characteristic phases:

  • After seeing, I get frightened like when an animal sees fire and retreats in fear;
  • When I see wood, I bite into it – it means, it cleans its teeth;
  • Turn the pole (if it encounters a column it goes around it – this action is very important);
  • Playing with water – meaning it sees his reflection and wants to play;
  • Eat salad;
  • Trying to do something in front of an obstacle, meaning a cautious approach to something that is in front of you. Is it to eat? To drink? It’s dangerous?

The typical positions of the lion dance are:

  • Ma Bo
  • Gung Bo
  • Wei Ma
  • Lau Ma
  • Tiu Ma

The lion expresses strength and power but inside he must be attentive, not reckless: he is rather cautious, but he is still curious and therefore he must try, know, touch. The most difficult, but most important thing is to identify with the animal.

The lion dance must tell a story, following a sort of script, which goes from waking up to greeting, surprise for things and objects around, fear, the desire to get closer, etc. Unlike ancient times, during today’s dances the face of the wearer must not be seen, except at the end, when there is the final greeting.

Depending on the color, a lion belongs to a legendary character; in particular, we talk about:

  • Kwan Kunlegendary general, uses red;
  • Zhan Fei, considered Kwan Kun’s younger brother, was a valiant warrior who was extremely short-tempered: uses yellow;
  • Lau Bei considered Kwan Kun’s older brother and traditionally referred to as highly intelligent, he was a master calligrapher: uses all other colors.

The various schools use one color rather than the other on the basis of certain typical characteristics of the school or of the teacher or also in relation to the study program (for example, Lau Bei was used by doctors); it is certainly true that the color indicates the “character of the Lion”, but not with a simplistic relationship such as:

 red indicates the angry lion, green the good lion etc.

Even the shape of the mouth, the horn, the ears and the eyes condition the lion, its origin can be deduced from its features:

  • Fat San with a curved mouth, equipped with a pointed horn and a long tail
  • Hok San with a straight mouth, curved horn and short tail.
  • Fat-Hok is a hybrid with a short tail like the Hok San, but a curved mouth like the Fat San

Kung-Fu schools transform the ancient movements performed on the ground or on small obstacles, carrying the dances on poles which can reach heights of 3 meters, with a development of about 25 meters. The lion, after having performed the ritual of awakening and greeting, fearfully observes the obstacles, distrustfully starting the climb with a series of difficult, risky acrobatics, at the limit of the possible, defying the force of gravity.

The drum gives precise sound orders with sometimes short and dull blows, and sometimes rapid and powerful (depending on the animal’s state of mind), while the gong and cymbals follow the rhythms of the percussion. After overcoming various obstacles and difficulties, the lion reaches the end of the path (it is the highest post), carefully approaches the salad, takes it, eats it, and then throws the residues of its meal into the air as a sign of abundance and prosperity; then he cleans his paws, relaxes, revealing himself to be less fearful and more self-confident. He embarks on the journey back to earth, overcoming obstacles with agility, determination and strength.

Once on the ground, he goes around the obstacles and near the audience, then greets and sits down.