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The Lion Dance is a pugilistic performance dating back to more than 1,500 years. Its performance during auspicious occasions such as the launch of new buildings, offices and shops is believed to bring good fortune and wealth. The Lion Dance is also performed during the Chinese New Year because of its association with the legendary stories of a bestial creature, the Nien, being frightened off by villagers banging on loud drums on the eve of Chinese New Year.
Legends & Myths
The lion is regarded by Chinese communities outside China as a creature representing good omen. However, the legend of Nien began with the lion as a monstrous creature. According to legend, every Chinese New Year's eve, an unknown animal came to destroy the fields, crops and animals belonging to the farmers of the village. They could not identify the beast and named it nien which came to mean "year" in Chinese. To put a stop to the ravaging, the villagers made a fearful model of the animal out of bamboo and paper, with two men manipulating it, accompanied by the loud beating of instruments. They waited for the animal on New Year's eve and succeeded in driving away the Nien. Henceforth, the Nien dance was performed annually on Chinese New Year's eve with drums, cymbals and gongs. Over time, the image of the animal came to look more like a lion and the dance was later regarded as auspicious for all significant occasions.
The Emperor Wen from the province of Song, during the North and South Dynasties (AD 420 - 589) invaded the territory of Lin-yi. His governor, Tan He was in a dilemma as to how his army could defeat the strong platoon of Lin-yi's General Fan Yan whose army rode elephants. Tan He struck on a brilliant plan - he would dress his army 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.
The dance requires two persons -- one to manipulate the papier-mâché head of the lion while another acts as the hind legs of the lion, both joined by a colourful cloth body. The S$1,000, two-kilogramme lion head is often decorated with a red bow on its horn, silk pom-poms and bells. The fur trimmings around the head is often sheepskin or rabbit fur, never of synthetic materials. The lion head has two eye-holes which allow the lead dancer to see where he is going. Often a dunce in a large mask teases the lion. Aside from spectacular acrobatic stances by the lion, the performers' co-ordination in bringing lifelike movements to the lion adds to the success of the dance. A troupe of musicians accompanies the lion dancers, playing cymbals and drums. 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 from happiness, anger, fright, merry-making, suspicion, drunkenness, sleep and wakefulness, with each emotion expressed by a different rhythm. Lion dancers belong to a guild or association and each guild worships a particular deity or heavenly patron.
The dance culminates in a skilful acrobatic act after which they either claim or 'discover' an hongpao ("red packets" filled with money). Today, more and more challenging tasks face the lion dancers such as peeling open a pomelo (a large citrus fruit signifying prosperity) and picking up crabs, snakes or fish from a bowl. The amount in the hongpao would be commensurate with the complexity of the task performed. The dance culminates with the lion opening its mouth to gulp down the hongpao. Although traditionally dominated by young boys, in Singapore these days even girls learn the art of lion dancing.
Types of Lion Dances
There are two types of lion dances, namely the Northern and Southern lion dance which differs in the appearance of the lion and the performance style.
Northern Lion Dance
The Northern school, practised in Beijing, is more acrobatic with the lion balancing on balls and on see-saws whilst being enticed by a pugilist dressed as a 'warrior'. The pugilist teasing the lion uses a fan or a ball and the interplay between him and the lion is the focus of the dance. The Northern Lion evolved from a Mongolian animal puppet placed on a post and paraded during festivals. The Northern Lion is furry with an orange and yellow, woollen coat.
Southern Lion Dance
The Southern school, which is more popularly performed in Singapore, originated in Guangdong. It involves a less hairy Lion which is taunted by a big-headed clown. They traditionally perform outdoors, the cai qing or literally "plucking the green", referring to the acrobatic act of picking up a sprig of lettuce from as high as three storeys, achieved only by using a pole or forming a human pyramid. The Southern lion has a 'skin' of white/yellow and brown/ black patterns. Whilst the Northern Lion is reputedly fierce, with a serious temperament, the Southern Lion is tame and playful.
The traditional lions are named after three brothers found in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- Face of Guan Gong, the red-faced and black-maned variety; Face of Liu Bei, the yellow-faced and white-maned variety; and Face of Zhang Fei, the black faced and black-maned creature with short eyebrows. The last is the least popular. In Heshan, South China, there is a fourth type, the fo shan or hua dan (Chinese opera singer) with a face that invariably resembles a local opera artiste.
Dianjing or "dotting the eyes" is required to animate the lion before it can perform. 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
Goodwood Journal, 4th Qtr., 11-25. (1977).
(Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCHJ)
A lion roars to life in a dance. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, Life, p. 1.
Real fur for heads, fake for paws. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, Life, p. 3.
The lions scare off the elephants. (1999, February 16). The Straits Times, Life, p. 2.
The lion up close: Lighting the inner spirit. (1999, February 16).The Straits Times, p. 3.
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 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.
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
Rites and ceremonies--Singapore
Chinese New Year--Singapore
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities