Lion is the king of animal. Though daring and brave, it is not as fierce as we think. Though it looks strong and powerful, it is benevolent and tame. Its heroic outlook makes other animals in fear. Since thousand of years ago, the Chinese respect and impress these qualities and characters of the lion. It status is at par with the symbolic dragon, phoenix and Qi Lin in the Chinese epic.
In actual fact, there is no lion in China. Lion came to China from India though the spreading of Buddhism. From the historical record, lion dance was started during the Han Dynasty. His Majesty Han Wu Ti made commercial ties with the West trough the Silk Road to China. Cultural interaction by means of functions in the palace in welcoming the guest from the West, like dances and songs were performed. During the performance, the dancers were wearing the mask of animals so as to entertain the guest. The guest later discovered that there was no mask of lion. They were told that there was no lion in China later, the traders from the west who were using the Silk Road to China to trade, brought along lions as gift to China. They also brought along their lion trainers. So lion shows, ( I.e : similar to what we see today in circus today. Lion hoping over flaming hoops) take place in China.
THE LION DANCE
According to the folklore, the art of lion dancing had started since thousand years ago in China. In ancient days, the people found it difficult to meet the lion. So, the impression towards the lion was a sense of ambiguous. With the historical changes, like the cultural revolution and the influence of various religions , arts and sports, led to the transformation of various aspects of culture within races and the ethnic group in China.
The lion dance movement change according to progress of history. Contemporary lion dances should be categorized into 2 categories. Northern lions and Southern lions. According to the historical points of view and the record of the old “Tang Shu” music which has the contents of Tai ping yue(Tai Ping Rhythm) in Zhou Wi Ti Era. In the Tai Ping Rythm has a phrase that says this, “There are 5 area of lion dancing. The lion dance was performed with people covered with lion-liked furry outfits. Two other performers using the rope and ribbon played around the lion that stands at their respective places”. According to another historical writing, during the Chow dynasty, lion dance has existed long ago.
The great poet of Tang Dynasty, Bai Qi Yi in his poetry describe clearly about lion dance in his book entitled “Xi Liang Zhi”. From the writing Xi Liang Qi, It states, the people wear a mask and fake lions which made out of wood and the lion head’s eye are gold in color, silver tooth and furry outfits. By their performance, it tells a story. The lion dance had been in China before Tang Dynasty. The costume wore by the lion dance today were more like the northern lion of today. From the book of ancient record, lion was from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The status of lion in Buddhism was like the holy guard of the religion. With the spreading of Buddhism into China, about the time of dynasties of Han, Wei, and Chin, lion dance flourished. In China, there are elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism which make lion dance look mysterious. The lion dance became a spiritual rite to be performed during important occasions and festivals. From the dynasties of Tang, Sung, Yuen, Ming and Ching and from the kingdom palace to the mass people, farming societies and deities’ festivals, the lion dance was one of the main agenda the organizers must not go without. The transformation of lion dance went along with changes of time and dynasties in China. From north to south, in various part of China, it was belief that during the time of Wei Wu Ti, the lion dance started to spread to people mostly in the northern region of Yang Tze Kiang from the place. During the years North Wei, Wei Wu Ti called the Northern Lions as “North Wei Lions” This continues till South Song’s period when it was rename as “Northern Lion” Due to the external physical features of lion and the “Peking Dog” was somewhat alike, with golden long fur and all its body, the lion dance also carried the names of “Jing Shi” mean Golden Lion. The northern lion performance normally was carried out with one pair of adult lions and one or a pair of young cub together with one, two or three martial arts exponents to lead the team. Besides the lions were identified with ribbons or colors on their heads, Red for male, green for female, Northern lion dance emphasize on agility and flexibility, graceful and benevolent.
THE SOUTHERN LIONS
The culture of various races and ethnic group in China also influenced the movements of the lion dance. From the northern region, the lion spread to the southern region. There were so many versions and story related to the start of southern lions. There were many type of categories of southern lions base on their forms and different characteristic. For example, the Kek Clans had their “Bull-Type Lion” and “Leopard-Type Lion”, while the Hokkien Clans has “Green Lions’ and so on. There were circumstances aroused and believed that southern lion became very popular. Southern lion was originated from Guang Dong so it was called Cantonese lions. During the early time, it was called the “Rui Lion” meaning Auspicious Lion. This name was use until the late Qing dynasty till the 17 years of “Ming Gua” (people replublic of China). This name changes after the 3rd May 1928 incident where many Jingnan people of China were tortured and killed by the Japanese and China was name as “The Sick Asians”. The name was change because the word “Rui”- Auspicious in Cantonese is pronounce as “Shui”-Sleeping. So, in Cantonese it is pronounce as sleeping lion instead of auspicious lion. When the Chinese people awoke and realized the importance of nationalistic, the “Rui-lion” was change to “Shing” Lion which mean Awaken lion. At Futshan and Hoksan, Guang Dong, the origins of the “Awaken Lion”, martial arts and lion dance school combines the skills of kung fu . Awaken Lion stressed on martial arts skills were popular among the masses. Southern lion dance during that period of post Ming and Pre Qing Dynasty motivated and influence the spirits of nationalism of the people. This is because of the unsatisfactory against the Qing government and various rebellious act was take place to restore the Ming. From there on, the lion dance spread to vast area of Guang Dong.
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A cut out portion from the documentary Dance The Lion (History)
This video touches on some of the topics written above. Such as
the 5 area of lion dance and also the The Ancient Tang Music Dream
Master Siow talks part of the history on how lion dance was
miss used as fighting props to rebel the Ching Dynasty