The Origin of Southern Lion Dance
The techniques of such particular style combine the various elements found in dances, martial arts, the study of labyrinths and psychology. All these are then blended together to present the different movements, actions, and moods of the lion.
Thus the lion can be skilfully featured as being in a joyous spirit, in annoyance, in a sad and pensive mood, or in gaiety; and even such internal feelings as being in doubt, in anxiety, in jealousy or in greed can be expressed vividly. These require a long period of training and comprehension in order to grasp the full extent of the techniques.
Southern lion dance is a relatively modern term coined by the South East Asian people of today. In fact, for some five or six decades ago, such feats were called “Auspicious lion dance”, as it is mainly performed during celebrations or happy occasions. Kung fu practitioners, however, names it “god-head dance” probably it is due to the fact that the animal was regarded as a symbol of majesty and divinity.
Here are a few stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Lion Dance Stories
The Jade Emperor and the Lion:
However, the Goddess of Mercy "Guan Yin" felt compassion towards the Lion and using an enchanted red ribbon reattached his head, telling him, that as she had shown him compassion, he in turn must show the same towards all living beings, and refrain from eating meat.
She then instructed him to seek out the Ling Chi grass, which had the ability to restore the Lion’s powers and allow him back into Heaven. But before he could eat the grass he was to perform a ritual of bowing. First to the left, representing Heaven then to the right, representing Earth and finally to the centre, representing Man. After the Lion had finished he cautiously approached the Ling Chi grass and ate as much as he could, but the grass was so potent that it put him to sleep and when he awoke, all his powers were restored and his dream of entering Heaven had come true.
And to this day, the enchanted red ribbon can still be seen on the horn of the Lion costume's head, and the Lion, in performances, still refrains from eating meat, dining solely on...lettuce.
Legend of the Nian:
It showed its appearance on every New Year Eve and came with low groans of “Nian-nian” and was called by the villagers the “Nian-beast”, (meaning the beast that comes annually). The beast had large eyes and a broad mouth, with a single horn on its head. Although it liked to eat vegetables, fortunately it never did any harm to people, animals or livestock. So the villagers also suspected that it was a godly object and dared not lay hands on it. However, owing to its annual arrival the produce of every harvest was greatly diminished.
As a result of this, the villagers thought out a plan to drive the beast away. They made use of thin bamboo sticks, straw and papier-mâché to fashion the shape of an object with close resemblance to the “Nian-beast”, with also one horn sticking out from its head. Then the object was painted and scraps of cloths tailored into triangular shapes were patched up together to forma blanket of some kind and attached to the papier-mâché head. After the villagers had finished with this, they assembled together in tens and brought with them all kinds of tools, pots/pans and instruments that could give out loud noises.
Equipped with all these, they went out to the fields, waving and dancing the paper head and banging the objects to frighten the beast away. The beast was so scared by such great noises and by the appearance of another beast, so it turned away and fled back to the wilderness.
In this way, the villagers achieved their purpose and the “Nian-beast” was no longer seen by the people.
Gradually the dancing of the paper head became a yearly custom, and on every New Years’ Eve people in the villages would practise such dances, and it was later known as “taking away the Nian”, “taking away the year of the Nian”, or alternatively called “dancing the Nian”. Moreover, because the “Nian-beast” had shown such fondness in eating vegetables, so, on the same occasion, a dish of vegetables would be placed in every doorway, and would be served as a prize to the dancers. This action implied that there would be a big harvest in the coming year, and came to be known by people as “picking the greens”, from the fact that green vegetables symbolised abundance in the harvests.
The previous titles of “taking away the Nian” and “dancing the Nian” were abandoned because the village elders considered the lion to be an auspicious animal, so the name should be changed into “dancing the auspicious lion”. Consequently, the lion dance of the Futsan County has been passed down through the years up to the present day world.
The Emperor’s Dream:
That morning when the Emperor awoke, he called for his ministers and told them about what he had dreamt and asked them if they know of or what kind of animal it was that had saved his life. One of the minsters explained to the Emperor that the strange creature that he dreamt of, resembled an animal from the West.
The Emperor ordered his ministers to have the imperial artists and master masons to recreate the animal of his dream and since the lion saved the Emperor’s life it became the symbol of prosperity, happiness and good luck.
The following literature below are excerpts from a new forthcoming book on traditional southern Chinese lion dancing by: Sifu Dave Stevens - Pak Mei Athletic Association, UK. All rights reserved.
Tradition of the lion dance with authentic Chinese martial arts
In the Old days:
In the old days, it was customarily that the live-in senior students of the kwoon (school) would go out during the Chinese New Year and perform the lion dance representing their respective system in and around their town or village. The money that the students collected from their lion dance performances were shared amongst each other and given to the teacher as their annual fee’s for food and boarding and learning the system.
Traditionally, lion dance was taught only to the high level senior students who had attained a strong foundation in their stances and footwork and who had also achieved a good level of martial and acrobatic ability, as many of the traditional lion dance stories and chengs required that high level of agility. Sometimes the cheng or greens were place 15ft sometimes 20ft above ground and only the most senior and well trained martial artist would be able to catch the greens and money while wielding the heavy lion head. These events soon became a public challenge with a large sum of money rewarded. However the audience wanted and expected to see a fantastic show of strength, endurance and skill.
Sometimes, if more than one lion came from different schools approached the lettuce at the same time, the lions were supposed to fight with stylistic lion moves instead of the chaotic street fighting moves, to decide the winner!
Often the audience would judge the quality of the martial arts schools according to how the lions fought. Such was the prestige of these lion dance competition and because the reputations of the martial arts schools were at stake, the fights were often very fierce. The winning lion would then use creative methods and martial art skills to reach the high-hanging reward.
The skill of the lion dancer is paramount; the student has to be able to perform and move from many low stances and incorporating high kicking movements and fast interchangeable footwork showing the strength and endurance of not just the student but of the school itself.
Competition between kung fu schools were usually very ferocious, as each school were very focused in proving that they were the better school in both lion dance and kung fu. During these times, many a fight and brawl broke out between schools were many a lion dancer got badly injured representing their school and teachers.
In fact, many schools perform the lion dance as part and parcel of Chinese cultural custom and will usually compete in the various lion dance competitions held nationally and internationally, be that from a traditional and competition style of lion dance. In today’s day and age, the danger aspect of the lion dance is held with the competition level where the teams would display more and more intricate acrobatic tricks through the lion story, many consisting on jumping across mei-hua jong – plum blossom stakes of varying heights and distances which are commonly seen in the national and especially the Asian held international lion dance competitions.
The colourful Lion and its skilful acrobatics along with the dramatic musical accompaniment of Drum, Cymbals and Gong make for a most exciting and memorable experience of a unique and traditional aspect of Chinese Culture.
Southern systems of kung Fu do not consider a Training Hall or Kwoon as it is known; to be complete without having a lion dance team. With the honour of being invited to be a lion dancer ensures a lot of responsibility on the student(s) to train hard and conscientiously, for the school is often judged by the skills of its lion dance team in performances and competitions.
In 1990, my Sifu, Tang Cho Tak took his lion dance team to Malaysia to enter into the international lion dance competition where his team performed a traditional lion dance routine consisting of many traditional puzzles like waking lion, lion coming out the cave, lion crossing the broken bridge to eventually performing the snake greens while all the time, the lion was being teased and guided and tricked by the monkey king.
At the end of the competition, the Pak Mei lion dance team won third place and came home to the United Kingdom with the bronze medal.
Choi Cheng – Plucking the Greens: Why is the Lion a Vegetarian?
Traditionally, when the lion eats it’s called ‘plucking the greens’. Usually lettuces and tangerines, together with a ‘red packet’ are placed out in different ways for the lion. Skill is an important factor in the lion dance and lion dancers need a high level of martial arts and acrobatic ability to be able to perform the many and various lion dance routines. The more difficult the style of ‘plucking the greens’ i.e. high up greens, snake greens, crab greens; the better their skill should be.
For the dance to be complete there must be an accompaniment of live music. Drums, cymbals and gongs are also an important part of the dance and the drummer should always be attentive to the movement and temperament of the lion. A good performance depends on the morale and mindset, strength, skill and artistic co-operation of the team as a whole unit working together.
The Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) Kung Fu and Lion Dance troupe like to wish everyone good luck, health and prosperity for the lunar New Year ahead.
Gung Xi Fa Cai (Kung Hei Fut Choi) – Happy New Year...!
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