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Lunar New Year: Chinese Lion Dancing

Since childhood, one of my favourite parts about our Lunar New Year celebrations was watching a live lion dance performance take place in Chinatown or at a shopping mall. Lion dancing a traditional dance in Chinese culture, and is performed across countries like China, Vietnam, Korea, and other Asian countries during special occasions like the Lunar New Year to bring in happiness, good luck and good fortune, while also chasing away evil/bad spirits. [Image: Scarborough Town Center CNY 2020]

Lion dancing is a lot more than just the dance itself. It also contains other elements such as Kung Fu, stylized costumes, and loud percussive instruments. Let’s take a look at some of these other key elements of traditional Chinese lion dancing that you can expect to see during a live performance:

Northern and Southern Lions

First off, Chinese lion dancing falls under two categories: Northern and Southern styles.

Northern lion dancing originates from places in Northern China (i.e., Beijing, Hebei and Shanxi provinces) and is performed in lion costumes that have a simple yet shaggy look to them (think of an Old English Sheepdog). The costume is equipped with a wooden lion head painted in gold, and a body with a red mane and yellow fur.

Performance elements like Chinese martial arts (including Kung Fu), and acrobatic stunts (like a circus act; rolling, wrestling, leaping, jumping, climbing), and even balancing on a giant ball, are all prominent themes you will often see in Northern lion dances. Northern dances may also feature a family of Northern lions, consisting of two adult lions (a male with a red bow on its head and female with a green bow or mane) followed by two young lions. [Images: Left (Flickr) & Right (South China Morning Post)]

Southern lion dancing originates from places in Southern China (i.e., Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore), and consists of lion costumes that have a more detailed and colourful appearance. Costume colours usually come in red, (for good luck) green (for money), gold or yellow (for good fortune), and the lion head is made out of “papier-mâché over a bamboo frame, covered in gauze”. The costume may also come in other colours such as orange, white, black, blue, purple and pink. Similar to Northern lion dancing and its display of Chinese Kung Fu, Southern lion dancing also tries to combine Chinese martial arts into the performance, along with mimicking the behaviours that a lion would typically demonstrate (catlike; grooming, scratching, and playing with objects) to make performances more entertaining for the audience. [Image: China Highlights]

Southern lion costumes may also have customized neon LED lights attached to the costumes to give audiences a brighter (pun intended) and more exciting performance! [Images: Left & Right]

Characters & Characteristics of Lion Dancing

Lion head & lion tail: A lion dance is usually performed with two people (often Kung Fu practitioners belonging to a local martial arts school) that are responsible for coordinating the dance with the lion’s head and tail. The head is the main part of the lion where the person in front leads the dance by holding the lion's head, while the other person in the back is the lion’s tail who follows and forms the basis of acrobatic tricks” for the person coordinating with the lion head. [Image: Al Jazeera]

The Buddha / Monk: Another key player of lion dance performances is the smiling “Buddha” or “Monk” character who holds a fan. The Buddha / Monk helps make the performances more engaging and joyful by interacting with audiences or even teasing the lion as a form of comic relief for viewers. [Image: Sydney Lion Dance Team]

The Ball: For Northern lion dances, they’ll often have a skilled martial artist hold a ball with ribbons attached to it as a way for the lions to chase after the ball and help guide the dancers with their movements and footwork. [Image: China Today]

Percussion Instruments: Finally, the drums, cymbals and gong play a major role in setting the tone, rhythm and atmosphere of the performance in its entirety. The drums are said to “represent the lion’s heartbeat,” while the gong and cymbals “represent the lion’s thoughts.” These elements of loud noise and music are key features for driving away evil spirits and hyping audiences up for a new year full of luck and celebration. [Image: Wushu Project Lion Dance Lessons]

Capturing the lettuce: One of the main highlights of lion dancing is the capturing of the lettuce, or “picking the greens”. A head of lettuce is hung outside of shops, businesses and restaurants with lucky red envelopes containing money attached to the lettuce as a reward for the performers, and to bring luck and prosperity for businesses. This acts as a way to feed the lions, while also having them eat and spit out the lettuce onto audiences to symbolize the spread of good fortune for everyone. [Image: Blog Post]

So whenever you start hearing loud drums and the clash of cymbals playing all together at your local Chinatown or nearby Asian community during the lunar new year, expect to receive blessings of good luck accompanied by a powerful lion dance performance!

C. Hong - shout out on Instagram! Guest Writer/Immortal Fan
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