The Story of Chinese Lion Dancing

By Sifu Kenneth Wong of Wei Mo Choy Lai Fut
Edited By Sifu Tony Shiu of the West Coast Lion Dance Troupe

Most cats are curious and playful, often causing a great deal of trouble for their mischievous activities. The great Lion who had originated in heaven, was no different. For years now, Lion had been causing a stir. Deities came from all over the heavens to complain to the Jade Emperor who ruled over them. The Emperor, thinking to himself, "Lion is always getting in trouble, always playing where he should not".

This wasn't the first time that Lion had been reported as insubordinate. As a matter of fact, the Jade Emperor could not himself remember the first defiant incident, and the Emperor knows everything. The Emperor started to shake his head and thought "This was going to be the last time he ever wanted to hear about Lion's insubordination". "Well, today Lion would not get away with it," promised the Emperor. "Today will mark the end of that menace." And with that, Look-Wong went and called Lion forth, chopped off Lion's head, and threw his remains out of Heaven and down to Earth to rot. "There," he thought, "this was the end of that." And it would have been, too, had not for Kwan'Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, who had been watching the whole preceding behind a silken cloud of mist. "Poor Lion," she thought, "doomed by his frisky nature. A bit playful, perhaps, but Lion had never did any real harm to anything or anybody." And with that, she flew from heaven, descending down to Earth to help the poor undone Lion.

After a long search, Kwan'Yin finally found Lion where he had landed with a thump, after falling to Earth. She tied his head back on to his body with an Enchanted Red Ribbon which she had brought down with her. "The ribbon," she told Lion, who was very pleased to have regained his head, "is enchanted. It will not only hold you together, but will also frighten away evil spirits and will keep you safe from any harm." This made Lion very happy for he now knew that the power of the Enchanted Red Ribbon would now keep him safe.

Of course Lion, himself, had his own method of frightening away evil spirits. He had a mirror ingrained in his forehead which reflect the devil's image back at him. Once the devil see how ugly he truly is, he knew, thereby, his sight is so bad it scares all of the evil spirits off. But the ribbon was much more powerful and with the two combined, no evil spirits could withstand the power that he is now blessed with.

Today, if you should look, you should notice and see that every Kung-Fu school's and Lion Dance Troupe's Lion Heads are equipped with a mirror on it's forehead and a red ribbon tied around it's horn. Practically every Kung-Fu school will have at least one Lion Head, for it is the very heart and soul of the school. He is the flag and banner of the school, because in the old days, the Lion spoke of the school's martial arts ability. Schools would perform the Lion dance at festivals to demonstrate how skillful their Kung-Fu abilities really are.

There are generally four factors that is be needed to make up the Lion Dance: the head, the tail, the buddha, and the drum or musical section. The musical section is normally made up of: a drum, a gong, and one or two pairs of cymbals.

The prestigious positions in a lion dance troupe are either the Lion's head or the drum. The tail position is over looked by most people and is undoubtedly one of the most difficult roles to play. The person whom is the tail must make sure that he follows every step that the head makes everytime and also follow the music. He is also required to be couched over in an uncomfortable position in order to operate the tail. For this reason, most people who plays the tail are short while those who are at the head are tall.

The drummer also has a difficult job. He must follow the Lion with his beat and also lead the lion when a change of plans suddenly happens. The drummer must also adjust if the Lion happens to make a mistake. He must be versatile.

Then there is the buddha head. The buddha is a Chinese monk. The person must wear a mask which is usually painted pink (white for a female) over his head. He must wear a robe and also carry a fan which is made up of a palm leaf. He plays with and also teases the Lion. He must lead the Lion to the lettuce, called the Lion's Chan, which the Lion tries to catch and eat. This denotes good luck. The buddha is also a very demanding role to play. The person playing it must be very athletic and perform movements like an acrobat by doing cartwheels, jumps, and various Kung-Fu moves. But in return, the Lion, depending on it's mood, will either play with, chase, bites, and/or kicks the buddha around.

By far, the most important role is the person who plays the Lion's head. He must be very versatile and very athletic. In order to play this position, the person must have the ability to make cat like movements with only the use of his lower body. His upper body duplicates the head movements, which leaves the hands and arms to control the eyes, mouth, ears, and facial expression.

There are two basic methods used when performing the Lion dance. The first is called the free-style method, in which the dancers must improvise by making up all the moves as the performance moves along. The dancers must also have the skills to be able to follow the music being played with the Lion's movements at the same time. This method is primarily used when performing in the streets. For example, on Chinese New Year, the Lion dancers traditionally take their Lions and dance their way through the streets and alley ways, going to every door of every house, store, restaurant, shop, office, bank, bar, movie house, and club that are on blocks that are within the area, usually throughout Chinatown. The Lion pays a visit to each place. This visit is called the Pai which means to visit or honor with one's presence. The Lion dances in front of the entry way to bring good luck. Those who are visited will put out a Chan, which could be a piece of lettuce or oranges, along with a red envelope and sometimes a traditional puzzle will be set out. A true test of knowledge and experience is needed when the Lion is confronted with a puzzle. The Lion must know how to solve it. For instance, if there is a pan of water with some coins at the bottom, the Lion must remove a certain number of the coins and leave a certain number of coins in order to fulfill the traditional act in order to bring good luck. There is a long list of traditional problems the Lion much know how to answer correctly if he is to show the quality of his Kung-Fu school.

In ancient China, one Kung-Fu school might test the quality of another school by testing their Lion. This would be a polite form of a challenge. The school might, for instance, place the Lion's Chan at the top of a high pole or building and leave it up to the Lion to figure out how to get it down. If the Lion did not think that he could do it, then he would have to pass it up. But this meant that his Kung-Fu skills were not sufficient to meet the problem that was set before their school. At the end, the Lion himself along with the school would lose face. But of course, the school who made the challenge would have to show that their Lion could get the Chan down in order to show that it could be done.

The second method of Lion dancing is called a routine set, in which the dancers know exactly what moves are going to be performed before hand. The music and foot work of the Lion will be in sync with each other. Most dance troupes will have at least one set routine.

The Different Styles of Lion Dancing

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