The Lion Dance:
Myths & Meanings

(Revised and Updated)

San Diego State University
Asian Traditions 459
Christopher Low
November 23, 1994


  1. Abstract

  2. Preface to the Second Edition

  3. Introduction
    • Background and History
    • Modern Views
  4. Ritual Aspects of the Dance
    • Sleeping
    • Opening
    • Playing
    • Searching
    • Eating
    • Closing
    • Sleeping
    • Music
    • Firecrackers
  1. Myths of the Lion
    • Loong Gi
    • The Lion and the Village
    • Kuan Yin and the Lion

  2. Conclusions

  3. Works Cited


Many who see a Chinese Lion Dance performed, and even many of the performers, do not stop to reflect on the symbolisms being presented. However, by understanding them, a greater appreciation for this ancient ritual can be gained. Insights obtained from studying the meanings of the ritual and myths surrounding it will also be helpful in studying the origin and development of the Lion Dance.

Using both books and my own personal experience of over ten years of performing the Lion Dance, I will start with a brief history detailing both the origin as well as the modern view for cultural context. From there, I will begin an in-depth study into the meanings of the symbolisms presented in each aspect of the dance. The third section of the paper will focus on the myths that have arisen concerning the Lion (especially his link to Buddhism).

For the second and third sections of the paper, I will make use of books such as Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols to interpret the symbolism. This presents a possible drawback of the paper in that it will be using Western methods of thought to interpret Eastern rituals. However, if, as Jung and I believe, the symbols that man uses are universal, then the problem dissolves.

Preface to the Second Edition

This paper was originally submitted to Dr. M. K. Hermansen of the Religious Studies department at San Diego State University as a term paper on ways of understanding religious ritual. As a result of my ongoing personal studies into the topics covered in this paper, it has been extensively revised and updated with new material and references added and corrections made to the original. The past few years of research in this field has led me to believe that there are very few people in San Diego who know even a little bit of the history of the Lion Dance. It has taken a long time to glean the small amount of information that I do have, only picking up bits and pieces at a time. I hope some day to find someone whose knowledge on the subject is at least as extensive as my own, but hopefully greater so I can learn more about this fading art. Any references or referrals would be welcomed greatly.

"Among hundreds of festivities and ceremonies [during Chinese New Year], [the] Lion Dance is one of the most important activities that cannot be omitted. The head of the Lion is made of paper mache and bamboo; its colorful body is made of burlap and silk. It takes two people to make the Lion Dance. One person is inside the head, using hidden triggers to flap the lion's ears and move its eyes. The other person is under the body of the lion, jumping around and wiggling the tail."
Excerpted from a Chinese new year banquet program from Ming's Chinese Restaurant; Vista, CA. 1994.

Every Chinese new year, anywhere in the world where there is a large Chinese population, this ritual can be seen. The Lion Dance is also performed for other special occasions such as grand openings, weddings, and large banquets. It is an ancient ritual dating back to the T'ang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) in China. Its exact origins are unclear, but can be traced back to either of two events. One is the visitation of China by roving bands of Persian performers. During the T'ang Dynasty, the Emperors of China were very open to exchanges of culture and arts with other countries. The lion was one of the many acts in the Persian "Nevruz" (new day) festival (Eberhard, 57). Po Chu-i, a famous poet of the T'ang Dynasty wrote:

"Masked barbarians made a lion Wooden its head, silken its tail Its eyes inlaid with gold, its teeth plated with silver" (Eberhard, 57).

This was then incorporated by the Chinese into their own festivals, especially the Harvest Moon and New Year's Celebrations.

The other event that Lion Dancing can be traced to is the annual cleaning of the imperial palace. Each new year, the palace was not only cleaned physically, but also spiritually. To accomplish this exorcism of the demons which had come to live in the palace in the past year, twelve sacred animals - actually men dressed as the animals - made three passes through the entire palace (Bodde, 83). The lion, chosen for its fierceness, was among the animals that accomplished this feat. It might be interesting to note however, that lions are not native top China. Therefore the very idea of a lion must have been imported from somewhere else. The Chinese Word for lion, "shi," closely resembles the Persian word "shir" (Eberhard, 58).

Regardless of its origin, the lion was used for a long time in Buddhist blessing ceremonies because of its ability to exorcise demons (Bredon, 395). Through an entirely independent series of events that fall outside the scope of this paper, the Buddhist temples were also the birthplace of the Chinese martial arts known as "Gung Fu" (sometimes spelled Gong Fu, or Kung Fu). In 1644, when the Manchurians took over China, the Buddhist temples were destroyed and practitioners of both arts (Gung Fu and Lion Dancing) were killed or scattered. To protect their identity, the survivors no longer openly associated with Buddhism, but opened martial arts schools throughout China. Shopkeepers and others still wanted the lion's blessings on their businesses. The problem they ran into was that the Buddhist temples were no longer operating. They turned instead to the Gung Fu practitioners. Thus Lion Dancing came to be associated with the Gung Fu schools more than with Buddhism. In fact according to Staples, "The lion traditionally represents the soul of the Kung-Fu school" (Staples, 94). He is writing from the martial arts perspective and therefore left out the religious tradition.

In traditional Gung Fu schools, the students did not pay a fee to learn the martial art from the Si-Fu (Master/Instructor). Instead, all the funding for the year came from lion dancing during competitions held during the new year's festival. In order to get the prize, the school's lion needed to be able to fight off all the other schools' lions. In this way, only the best schools, and lions, survived. It is only relatively recently that Gung Fu is being taught commercially.

Modern Views

Today, Lion Dancing is not found in many American Gung Fu schools, but in China it is hard to find one that doesn't perform this important act. In America, the only schools I know of that perform the Lion Dance are those that are extremely traditional with Si-Fu's that are first generation, or their sons. Some schools I have been to have a set of equipment, but the instructors no longer know what to do with them. Needless to say, none of the American schools rely on Lion Dancing for funding. The equipment is used simply as a decoration in an attempt to make the school look more traditional. Most of the Lion Dancers know about the Buddhist link, but most are not Buddhists. Even the people that have a Lion Dance performed for their event are more interested in the cultural aspect of it rather than the religious. Many of the Lion Dance performances are not put on by Gung Fu schools anymore, but are done by acrobatic troupes and Chinese cultural associations. However, there are still a few that believe in the exorcism abilities of the Lion. Each Chinese new year, they seek out Lion Dancers to bless their business for the coming year. For them, it is almost sacrilege if a Lion Dance is not performed in the traditional way.

Ritual Aspects of the Dance

There are many different ways of performing the Lion Dance, but each one follows the same basic pattern. The eight elements of the basic Lion Dance are: Sleeping, Opening, Playing, Searching, Fighting, Eating, Closing, and Sleeping. The dance may be extended, or parts may be left out. The lion dance is also accompanied by the music of a large drum, gong and cymbals, and the popping of firecrackers. An example of a typical Lion Dance is found in a Chinese new year banquet program.

To begin Lion Dance, drums, cymbals and gongs play as loud as possible. This wakes up the lion. The lion is grumpy when it wakes up! It circles around, growling and gargling. Then, the lion bows to the audience and begins to dance with the music. After all these exercises, Lion Dance comes to the climax. Now the lion is hungry, so it starts "Chai Chin," that means looking for a snack, and "Chin" is a green vegetable. The lion takes "Chin" into its mouth, and then spits "Chin" out over the audience. Firecracker explodes, and everyone cheers.
Excerpted from a Chinese new year banquet program from Ming's Chinese Restaurant; Vista, CA. 1994.

Having the routine begin and end with the lion sleeping, puts the whole dance into a type of "dream sequence." This technique is often used by modern film-makers and playwrights. If the dance takes place as a dream, it is in a transcendent reality filled with the symbolism of dreams. These symbols can therefore be interpreted as a dream.


The typical sleep sequence of the dance is broken up into three sections: Sleep, Waking Up, and Cleaning. Beginning the dance with an awakening represents an awakening of the spirit, a dawning of something new. The cleaning reinforces this by giving the image of shedding off the old, and being refreshed. After cleaning each part of his body, the lion shakes his head three times and rises. Having been cleaned, the lion is now in a "pure" or holy state and is therefore able to bestow blessings.


Since the lion is now in a holy state, it can be seen as a type of religious hero. It is coming to vanquish the evil spirits. The first thing it does is to bow three times in a symbol of the blessing that it is bringing. In many cultures, the bow is a sign of respect and honor. In Chinese culture, three bows are a sign of the deepest reverence for someone, or something. Jung believes that numbers "...are more than you take them to be. They are at the same time mythological elements (for the Pythagoreans, they were even divine)..." (Jung, 29). The number three can be found repeated many times throughout the routine and is often seen by traditional numerologists as the "perfect number," or number of completeness. In a parallel, Christian blessings during baptisms and dedications are accompanied by three "bows" into water. The three bows of the lion can be traced back to the three passes of the twelve animals in the ancient custom of cleansing the palace. Why they made three passes then can only be speculated, but has a tie on the subconscious level. The palace was being exorcised of demons, and returned to its perfect state. What better way to do this than having the act of purification done a perfect number of times? This idea of perfection shows up many times in the Lion Dance. The three shakes of his head after the cleaning can also be interpreted as a sign of the perfect or complete cleaning - a cleaning of not just body, but spirit as well.


After showing respect for the thing to be blessed, the lion begins to play. He can play with whatever is around, often jumping on top of things, or doing balancing acts in a show of great skill. The lion shows off his abilities and it enhances his quality of being a hero by doing amazing feats for the crowd. The most common thing for the lion to play with is a great ball, or pearl. "Because lions are credited with a fondness for playing with a ball, the main feature of the performance is their pursuit of an enormous globe thrown in front of them or across their path. They will even leap after it on to the roof of a one-storeyed [sic.] house, or jump down from there into the courtyard" (Bredon and Mitrophanow, 395).

According to Dr. M. L. von Franz, the circle is seen as a symbol of "totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature" (Jung, 266). The circle Jung suggests, can also be an image of healing, or wholeness (Jung, 285). The sphere is the three dimensional representation of the circle. Since the Lion Dance is performed to restore something to a clean, pure state, this seems to be the image that is being projected - the lion pursuing the cleansing from evil spirits and a restoration of right relationships between man and nature. This ideal, or goal, projected as a great pearl, shows that the cleansing is both valuable and desirable.


When the lion is done playing, he begins a quest for food. He is about to engage in a spiritual battle and needs something to sustain him. The lion becomes the "hero on a quest" (Jung, 101). It is a test that he must pass - an initiation rite of sorts. In traditional competitions and performances, there are all kinds of obstacles that the lion must overcome to get to the food. The lion must be very skillful in order to achieve the goal of getting to the food. This display of skill also serves to reinforce the lion's image of a larger-than-life hero figure. Fighting

Fighting is only engaged in if there are more than one lion performing the ritual. Once the food is found, a fight is begun by all of the lions that made it past the barriers. Even if the lions are from the same troupe, they will still fight to determine which one will get the prize. Again, this is an example of the lion showing off his heroic qualities. this time by defeating his competitors. In this portion of the dance, the lion must show vigor and strength in order to overcome his adversaries. It may be interesting to note that the lion has a horn. In the Bible, the horn is used as a symbol of strength (1 Samuel 2:10, Job 16:15, etc.).


The lion's food is usually found dangling on the end of a string. It can consist of almost any food, but most common are lettuce and tangerines. The lettuce, or "Chin" (literally "greens") is a symbol of wealth and luck. It is obvious why Americans would associate wealth with the color green, but why would the Chinese who had no paper money during the T'ang dynasty, and even today their money is not printed with green ink? This suggests to me that there is a deeper link on the subconscious level. The tangerines symbolize longevity, and this can be explained by their spherical shape. The lion takes all of this into his mouth and after shredding the lettuce and splitting the tangerine into quarters, "spits" it out over the audience. This symbolizes spreading the wealth, and is the actual blessing in the dance. The spitting is traditionally done three times. Once to the left, then to the right, and then to the center. Since this is the blessing, it is the perfect blessing. The quartered tangerines can be seen as "mandalas," or squared circles, another symbol of wholeness (Jung, 280). Also hanging on the string is a red envelope containing money as an offering to the lion. As in many religions, an tithe or offering of some sort is required as a sign of gratefulness for the blessing.


The quest is over and the blessing is given, so the lion comes to the end of his routine. He cleans his beard and once again makes three bows. As the earlier cleaning and bows symbolized the beginning, these symbolize the end. Having completed his task, he washes himself of it and respectfully bows out. It may be interesting to note that the length of the beard represents the relative seniority (a very important concept in the Chinese world) of the lion/Gung Fu school (Crompton, 112). In a Western parallel, pious Jews and Biblical Nazarites are known for not trimming their beards and are often seen within their own traditions as being able to confer special blessings (Leviticus 19: 27).


The lion returns to his slumber closing the dream sequence, and going back into a calm, restive state. Having done what he was called upon to do, the lion fades back into the mythical realm. Things have returned to normal with the exception of a blessing being given and demons scared away. With the end of the ritual, the observer returns from his trip in sacred time and can go on living, but with a renewed life.


The music of the Lion Dance is led by the drum and is accompanied by the gong and cymbals. In the East, drums are commonly used as instruments of celebration. they also have a use, especially in Africa, of expelling demons. (Perhaps this is why they are instruments of celebration.) The Lion Dance incorporates both of these elements into the ritual. In the Bible, the gong and cymbals were often played in celebration and also as a praise offering to God (1 Chronicles 13:8, Psalm 150:5, etc.). In Lion Dancing, it is the music that wakes the lion up and stirs him to give the blessing. Each of the three (perfect number) instruments share the same basic shape - the circle (symbols of completion and restoration).


"Besides being strenuous, the life of a lion dancer is further complicated by the smoke and explosion of piles of firecrackers thrown at his feet" (Lee, 62) It is the noise of the firecrackers, along with that of the music and the fierceness of the lion that supposedly scare the evil spirits away. The importance of the symbol of fire can be seen in that it is visible not only in the firecrackers, but is also painted onto the lion's head and the other equipment. Jung only gives one example of fire as a symbol, that of a fever or consuming fire (Jung, 66). The unconscious projection of this is someone dying in a fire. Since this is not the symbol presented in the Lion Dance, it must have a different meaning. I believe that it has more to do with the concept of the refining fire that the Bible speaks about (Malachi 3:2). It is a cleansing that the lion is called to perform. The smoke from the firecrackers is related to the smoke of incense. Many religions make use of incense, because the smoke drifts up into heaven along with the believer's prayers, hopes, etc.

Myths of the Lion

We have already encountered the ideal of the lion on a mythical quest for restoration and holiness. We have also seen that the lion is used by Buddhists. The following three myths explore the mythical link that the lion had with Buddhism. Although the lion was often seen as "a Bodhisattva and acted as a guardian of Buddhism" (Latsch, 43), there is hardly any documentation to explain why they were linked. In many of the Lion Dance routines, there is a Buddha performing along with the lion. He plays with the lion and guides him on his quest. In Buddhist rituals, it would seem that the Buddah should have the superior position with the lion as a servant or companion. However, the Buddah in the lion dance is seen as the equivalent of a circus clown or buffoon. He is also known as a "teaser" or "funny man" and is characterized by a "large belly and the butt sticking out" (Advanced Lion Dances of China). In his article, Staples even calls the Buddah the antagonist (Staples, 94).

1) Loong Gi

This myth has the lion looking for a mythical mushroom known as "Loong Gi" that is supposed to have great healing properties. A Buddhist monk is also on a quest for the same mushroom. The two meet up and join together to search for the mushroom. As they travel together, the monk teaches Buddhism to the lion and the lion in turn protects the monk form danger (Advanced Lion Dances of China).

In this myth, we can see some of the heroic qualities of the lion. He is a protector, and guardian of Buddhism, and he is on a sacred quest. The object he is seeking is used for healing and thus the lion is also a healer. The lion and the monk join together for mutual benefit.

2) The Lion and the Village

Legends tell of a village that was being overrun by rats. One day, a lion appeared and ate all of the rats. However, once the rats were gone, the lion turned on the villagers. There was a Buddhist monk in the village and he captured the lion and taught it Buddhism. The lion became tame and protected the village from attackers (Advanced Lion Dances of China).

This myth also presents the lion as a savior of sorts. He delivers the village from the rats, but does so for selfish motives. This lion fits almost perfectly with the Greek idea of the "tragic hero" who falls after succumbing to pride or selfish desires (Jung, 103). Once the rats are gone, he seeks to satisfy his hunger by eating the villagers. The monk rescues the lion from this carnal state, and shows him a better way of life in Buddhism. The lion changes his ways and becomes the guardian of the village. This is almost a version of the "beauty and the beast" archetype detailed by Jung (Jung, 130). The next myth shows the archetype better.

3) Kwan Yin and the Lion

In a variation of the above tale, the villagers kill the lion and cut its head off. Then Kwan Yin, a Bodhisattva figure, has pity on the beast and resurrects him by tying his head back on with a red ribbon. The lion out of gratitude becomes a disciple of Buddhism. Kwan Yin continues to be his mentor (Crompton, 112).

Since we are looking at Lion Dancing as a product of the subconscious, we can either interpret this myth as a version of the beauty and the beast archetype (Kwan Yin saw the inner strength of the lion) or we can see Kwan Yin as the lion's anima (Jung, 150). According to Jung, the anima is a female within the subconscious of every male that serves as his guide in the subliminal world (Jung, 195).


There are not too many resources that detail aspects of the Lion Dance. Even the ones I did find barely mentioned Lion Dancing. It may be that this paper is one of the few semi-scholarly works to deal exclusively with the lion dance. I have certainly not been able to find any, though not for lack of trying. As time moves further away from the origin, many things have been lost. Lion Dancing has gone from a serious art done by professionals for emperors, to a public spectacle done mostly to keep the culture alive. In itself, the Lion Dance is beautiful to watch, but without an understanding of its history, too much of it becomes meaningless.

Works Cited

Advanced Lion Dances of China. Videocassette. Prod. Panther Productions, 1988. 60 min.

Bodde, Derk. Festivals in classical china. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Bredon, Juliet, and Mitrophanow, Igor. The Moon Year. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1966.

Crompton, Paul. The Complete Martial Arts. New York: McGraw Hill Publishers, 1989.

Eberhard, Wolfram. Chinese Festivals. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958.

"Happy Chinese New Year!" Ming's Chinese Restaurant Chinese New Year Dinner Program. Vista, CA, 1994.

Jung, Carl G., et. al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1964.

Latsch, Marie-Luise. Chinese Traditional Festivals. Beijing, China: New World Press, 1984.

Lee, Calvin. Chinatown, U.S.A. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965.

Staples, Michael P. "Lion, Chinese Kung-Fu." Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. New York: Gallery Books, 1983.