Lion Dance, An Extremely Loud Chinese Tradition
History of lion dance
Mention the Chinese lion dance and the immediate images are prancing lions and loud noises. The lion dance is one of the most popular and best known cultural performances of China. The lion dance is now performed throughout the world during Chinese festive seasons, especially during the Chinese Lunar New Year, which usually falls in the month of February.
The lion dance dates back to the Han Dynasty of China ((206 BC – 220 AD). Actually China had no lion. Lions were introduced through the Silk Route most probably by traders from Persia, Afghanistan and Northern India. This much we know, but the actual beginning of the lion dance remains a mystery. The lion dance symbolises good luck and prosperity. Traditionally lion dance was performed only during festivals and special occasions. This would be accompanied with the letting off of fire crackers, and lots of loud noises from the accompanying drums, cymbals and gong. The whole lion dance performance is supposed to signify gaiety, and the letting off of fire crackers is to chase away bad luck, while welcoming good luck. One can safely conclude that wherever there are Chinese community, there will be lion dance when they celebrate their special occasions such as Chinese Lunar New Year, weddings, birthdays, opening of new businesses and new premises.
Just to make sure everyone knows how the lion dance is choreographed, the lion is handled by two persons. The one in front manipulates the head, while the other stands at the back flapping the body cloth.
Northern Style Lions
Southern Style Lions With "Big Head" Jester
Types of lion dance
There are two main styles of lion dance.
The Northern style originated from Northeast China around the seaport city of Ningbo. The Northern style was originally performed in the Imperial Court for entertainment. The Northern lion has a more adorable look than the Southern lion. It has shaggy hair and looks like a giant Pekinese dog. The dance is usually performed in pair, one male and one female. The male lion head has red fur and adorns a red bow, while the female is green. Both have orange colored furry body. The Northern style dance movements are gracious and are usually performed with acrobatic stunts on stack-up stools and tables, and with large balls. There will also be a leading acrobat to complement the movements of the lions.
The Southern style lion dance is more aggressive in movements, incorporating kung-fu stunts and movements. There are two main schools in Southern style, the Fut-San (Buddha Mountain) and the Hok-San (Crane Mountain). The lion head is as impressive as the Northern style, but the body is less elaborate making it more agile for fast movements.
The Lion Dance Drum Team
Lion dance cymbals and gong
The drum accompaniment
The most outstanding feature of the lion dance is the extremely loud noise made by the big drum and the accompanying cymbals and gong. I can safely say that the lion dance makes the most noise without the aid of loud speakers. The drum accompaniment of the Northern lion dance is different from that of the Southern lion dance. The Northern lion dance uses a smaller drum, with complementary cymbals and gong quite similar to those of the Peking opera. It is more melodious, and not as loud as the Southern lion dance.
The Southern lion dance uses the big drum, big cymbals and a big gong, making the most aggressive and loudest of noises. The traditional accompaniment would be a big drum, a pair of large cymbals and a big gong. However, it is now the trend to use at least 2 pairs of large cymbals in order to create louder noise.
Watch the last video and you will know the difference of the two different drum accompaniments.
Lion "plucking the green"
Traditional Southern lion dance
Historically, Southern lion dance troupes were formed from the various martial art schools or kung-fu schools. These schools were places where highly skilled kung-fu experts displayed their prowess and skills. These were the core units of the many Southern lion troupes. Very often, there would be clashes amongst these troupes to stay ahead of the rest. This is now history, and a more civil competition has taken over.
The traditional Southern lion dance would include a climax of “plucking the green” or in Chinese "cai ching" (採青), where the lion would have to prove its skill to pluck the green which would be hanging at a high position. The “green” would be in the form of a bunch of Chinese lettuce, accompanied with a red packet. This is the ritual performed by the lion dance to usher in good luck and prosperity.
New-age lion dance
While the traditional lion dances of the Northern and Southern schools are still in practice, there is now the new-age lion dance geared towards entertainment and competition. The most popular and spectacular of these variations is the pole lion dance, where the lion shows its skills in performance on high poles. I think the country which popularizes this lion dance art is Malaysia, the country where I live. Pole lion dance competitions have taken popularity throughout the world, especially in China and Southeast Asian countries. The world champion team is currently held by the Malaysian lion dance troupe, the Kun Seng Keng Dragon and Lion Dance Association.
With the introduction of new lion dance movements and manoeuvrings, new designs of lion heads also emerged with assortment of colors to choose from. Even the drum accompaniment has variations with recorded music to complement the standard drum team.
The Latest Pole Lion Dance
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Let's enjoy the youtube videos
Nothing can better describe the lion dance than a visual-audio display. I hope you enjoy the 6 youtube presentations below, depicting the Northern and Southern lion dances, and also the latest pole lion dance.
You would definitely enjoy the last video from a snippet from an old Chinese film, depicting a confrontation between the Northern and Southern lions. Listen to the drum accompaniments of the two different groups and you will know their difference.
The Northern Lion Dance (Team from Malaysia)
The Northern Lion Dance
2012 World HK Pole Lion Dance Championship (Team from Malaysia)
Pole lion dance by champion team Kun Seng Keng from Malaysia
Another Pole Lion Dance From Malaysia
Southern vs Northern Lion Dance Fight (From an old Chinese film snippet)
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