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Lion Dance for dummies

Updated: Feb 24


The lion dance (simplified Chinese: 舞狮; traditional Chinese: 舞獅; pinyin: wǔshī, sometimes called the unicorn dance or qilin dance in Vietnam) is a traditional dance in Chinese culture and other Asian countries in which dancers, dressed in a lion costume, mimic the movements of the animal. It is most often performed for the Chinese New Year and other Chinese religious or cultural festivities, but also at trade fair openings, weddings, or simply to honor important guests: this dance is supposed to bring good luck.

It is sometimes confused with the dragon dance, despite two important differences: the number of dancers (two for each lion, while a single dragon requires at least a dozen) and the fact that the dancers are visible in the dragon dance, a figure they hold and manipulate at the end of long poles. The basic movements of the lion dance, unlike those of the dragon dance, are also found in most Chinese martial arts.

There is an ancient Chinese tradition of dancers wearing masks of animals or mythical creatures; in texts such as the Classic of Documents, descriptions of dances of wild beasts and phoenixes could be masked dances. In Qin dynasty works are descriptions of dancers performing exorcism rituals and wearing bear masks; Han dynasty texts mention "mimes" (象人) imitating fish, dragons, and phoenixes. However, the lion is not present in China before the Han Dynasty, so it is assumed that the lion dance came from countries such as Persia and was introduced to China via Central Asia; other authors consider an Indian origin. According to ethnomusicologist Laurence Picken (en), the Chinese word for "lion," shi (獅, once written 師), may be derived from the Persian word šer. The word shi(zi) meaning "lion" appears in Han Dynasty texts in close association with Central Asia (an earlier term that had become obsolete was suanni (狻麑 or 狻猊)); lions were presented to the Han court by ambassadors from the Parthian Empire.

Detailed descriptions of the lion dance appear in the Tang Dynasty; at that time, writers and poets considered it a foreign dance. However, similar dances may have been noticed in China as early as the third century CE, with Meng Kang (孟康), a scholar of the Three Kingdoms period, describing "lion scenes" in a commentary on the Hanshu. These early mentions associate it with Buddhism: in a Northern Wei Dynasty text, Description of Buddhist Temples in Luoyang (洛陽伽藍記), a parade of a Buddha statue from Changqiu Temple (長秋寺) is led by a lion to drive away evil spirits.

Type of parades and shows

Opening of a restaurant

When opening a new restaurant, the owner usually requests a lion show to attract luck and fortune.

The show always begins with the lion waking up and greeting people, then the lion goes around inviting them into the new restaurant.

The owner prepares the table for the guests and the lion at the same time, so that when the lion brings the guests in, they can see that they are healthy and lucky.

Lunar New Year

This is a traditional show in which the lion wakes up and greets everyone. Then he goes around playing with people, giving them gifts and spending time with them.

After a while, the lion shows his best move.

They may jump and stay in a nice pose. Each lion has at least one particular routine that we call a Combo.

Then they wait for the guide to set up the scenario.

The scenario starts with a lion playing with and taking clementines, then they discover and play around a plate full of fruit, which is considered a treasure. All the lions want this treasure and fight until the strongest and most fearless one wins.

The others go around and give them luck and happiness in the form of a fortune cookie or a clementine, which is considered a gold bar.

The other lion then fetches the salad, which represents luck, hanging on a tree. He takes the outer part to distribute to the guests, and keeps the heart of the salad, which is the best part, for the guest of honor. When the lion who won the treasure has finished preparing, other lions bring the heart of the salad to put on the plate to give to the guest of honor.

Before they give it to the guest of honor and say goodbye to everyone, they show the wish strip to celebrate and wish everyone the best.

At the end, they bite the guest of honor for good luck and greet everyone.

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