Lions may not be one of the four mythological creatures in Chinese culture, but it is considered an important creature in Chinese mythology. Like the dragon and phoenix, you’ll find them incorporated in Chinese architecture. You’ll usually find their statues standing guard at the doors of many Chinese buildings.
In Chinese New Year, a dance known as the Lion dance is normally performed in honor of the creature. The dance involves the synchronized sound of beating drums, gongs, and cymbals accompanied by dance movements and actions. To fully understand the importance of this dance in Chinese culture, in this post, we will cover its history, meaning, and the different types. As a bonus, we’ll also cover steps you can follow to create your lion dance costume.
What Is the Meaning of The Chinese Lion Dance?
The lion is a significant creature that holds a lot of symbolism in Chinese culture. They are seen to represent superiority, strength, and stability.
In Chinese mythology, during the reign of the Yellow Emperor, the Chinese people and animals were said to have been attacked by a monster called “Nien”. The monster was considered unbeatable, fiercer, and faster than even the best tigers and dogs. Out of despair, the people approached the lion for help. According to the mythology, the lion charged towards the Nien with bravery and managed to wound it. The monster ran but swore it would come back to avenge its wound.
About a year later when the Nien returned, the people no longer had the protection of the Lion. To protect themselves they created a “lion” out of cloth and bamboo and had two men crawl inside the costume and approach the monster. While approaching it, the fake lion roared and pranced, scaring the Nien away again.
That act becomes what is now known as the lion dance and is traditionally performed every year during the Chinese New Year. It can also be performed on other grand or important occasions like Chinese religious or cultural festivals, birthdays, weddings, or business openings. Based on Chinese mythology, the dance is believed to frighten away evil and bring about good luck.
There are two versions of the lion dance, that is, the North and South Chinese Lion Dance. The north Chinese lion dance is more acrobatic with very lifelike movements and stunts like balancing on a large ball or doing lifts. The dance is performed in pairs, where the male lion is identified with a red bow on its head and the female is represented with a green one. The south Chinese dance is less lifelike but displays more power in its performance, where the dancers use different steps and movements to represent the different temperaments of the lion. The south Chinese lion dance incorporates three lions, the green one symbolizing friendship, the golden lion as a sign of liveliness, and the red one representing courage.
History Of Chinese Lion Dance
Dancers wearing masks that resemble mythical beasts and animals have been one of the oldest traditions in China. Lions, however, are not native to China. The first mention of the Chinese word for lion, “shizi”, was during the Han dynasty. This was around the time the Parthian empire presented lions and other exotic animals as gifts and tribute to the Han court.
The first reference of the lion dance was during the Tang dynasty as a foreign dance. The dance was highly associated with Buddhism in the early periods, where it was performed during a parade for a Buddha statue, to ward off any evil spirits. During the Tang dynasty, there were different versions of the dance.
In the court, the dance was referred to as The Lion Dance of Five Directions. This dance involved five differently-colored lions representing different moods, controlled by two people using ropes and accompanied by 140 singers. A different version of the dance as described by a Tang Poet, Bai Juyi, involved two hu dancers wearing lion costumes made of a wooden head and silk body. This version closely resembles the lion dance performed today.
How To Make a Chinese Lion Dance Costume?
The lion dance costume can vary. Some are elaborate with large 3D heads and wide-open mouths and eyes. But you don’t need a complex costume for it to serve its purpose. Here are simple steps you can follow to make your own simple lion dance costume:
What you’ll need:
- Hot glue gun
- Gold fringe
- Red cloth
- Several colored cardboards
Step 1: Make the head of the lion
Start by printing out the face of a traditional lion dance costume face, so you have an idea of how it looks and what to include. Trace the outline of the lion’s face on one cardboard, ensure it’s 3 x 2 Ft. Cut out the shape of the outline, then use the other colored cardboards to cut out the eyes mouth, tongue, and nose. Finally, glue them onto the outline of the face, to complete the lion’s face.
Step 2: Create the body of the lion.
First, you need to determine the size of the body and how much material you’ll need. To do that, line up the dancers in the position they’ll be in when wearing the costume. Drape a cloth over them. Cut out the required size and use the gold fringe to hem it. You can do that using the hot glue gun to attach the fringe to the sides and back part of the clothe at its edges. Avoid the front end since that’s where the head will go.
Step 3: Attach the head and the body
Using the hot glue, attach the fabric to the top of the lion’s face. That way, when the dancer at the front holds up the face, the cloth will cover his/her head and body. And just like that, the costume is ready for use!
Even today, lions continue to hold an important place in Chinese tradition. Stone lions are still seen as a symbol of prosperity strength and power, which is why you will still find them guarding many Chinese buildings. The lion dance has also over time spread across the world to many countries including those in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific region, thanks to Chinese immigration.