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Chinese Lion Dance has a very long history and there are many versions of its origin, some based on fictional stories passed down for generations and others based on historical facts.  The lion dance has existed in Chinese culture for more than a thousand years. Lion dance originated in the Han Dynasty

(205 BC - 220 AD) and reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty (716 - 907 AD).  Lions are considered a divine animal of nobility and dignity.  It is a symbol of strength, wisdom and courage in Chinese culture.

The Lion Dance has two different types - northern and southern.  The two differ in the style and appearance of the lion.  The northern style lion dance is mainly performed for entertainment during festivities and the colors of the lion are typically red, orange and yellow with a shaggy appearance.  The southern style lion has a distinctive head, displays a variety of colors, has a single horn and mirror(s).  The northern style lion is popular in northern China while the southern style lion is popular in southern China, particularly in Guangdong and neighboring provinces.  The tradition of lion dance continued with the Chinese immigrants who settled in different parts of the world, including the United States, Canada, and Latin America.  Lion dances are seen in Chinatowns everywhere especially during Chinese New Year celebrations, business grand openings, other festive events, and competitions. 

The presence of a lion is regarded as an auspicious sign and the lion dance plays a significant role in all cultural festivals in China. Traditional lion dance has a close relation with the martial arts and the dancers are typically kung fu practitioners.  Southern systems of kung fu do not consider a training hall to be complete without having a lion dance team.  With this honor comes great responsibility to train hard and conscientiously as the training hall is often judged by the skills of its lion dance team in performances and competitions.  The colorful lion and its skillful acrobatics along with the dramatic musical accompaniment of a drum, cymbals and gong make for a very exciting and memorable experience of a unique and traditional aspect of Chinese culture. 

Depending on its place of origin in China, the head of the lion can take one of two shapes, the Hoksan (Crane Mountain) and Futsan (Buddha Mountain) lion.  Presently, the Wushu-Kung Fu Fitness Center teaches the traditional Futsan style, which incorporates powerful moves and stances often used in kung-fu, thus requiring strength and stamina from the dancers.  The Southern lion is a composite of magical and mystical elements.  Features of the Southern lion include the horn of the phoenix, the ears and tail of the unicorn, the beard of a dragon, and a mirror on its forehead to ward off evil or demons (demons are prevalent in Chinese superstition and mythology).  The Southern lion head and body come in various color schemes.  Traditional color schemes give the lion type its name, which are based on the “Three Generals (or Heroes)” also known as the “Three Sworn Brothers of the Peach Garden” from Chinese history and immortalized in the Chinese classic novel, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms".  Their names and hence the lion's names (based on the color theme) are Liu Bei (colorful face, white beard), Gwan Gung (red face, black beard), and Zhang Fei (black or green face, black beard).  These Generals were brothers and are also known as first, second and third sons - Liu Bei being “big or first brother”, Gwan Gung being the “second brother”, and Zhang Fei being the “third brother”.  Liu Bei is the most auspicious and wise lion and is the one used by long established kung fu training halls or associations.  Liu Bei is also the one most often used in lion dance performances where good luck and prosperity want to be ensured.  Gwan Gung is the brave and loyal lion used by newly established kung fu training halls or associations, while Zhang Fei is known as the fighting lion because of its brash and pugnacious nature and is used by new training halls or associations wishing to establish themselves in the community.  The golden lion (Huang Joon) has also become very popular. 

Popular Folklore

The story of Guan Yin’s Compassion

Another origin story places the lion as a mystical creature that existed in the heavens.  The lion was a playful and mischievous creature, so much so that one day it caused too much trouble for the King of Heaven to control.  As punishment, the Jade Emperor chopped off the lion’s horn (the source of its life) and it died.  Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) felt sorry so she tied the lion’s horn back on with a red sash with golden leaves and chanted to bring it back to life.  If you look closely at any lion, you can see a red sash tied on its horn.

The story of the Nian
The legend says "Nian" was a fierce monster that liked kidnapping children and terrorizing villages.  Eventually, a lion defeated and chased the monster away but Nian vowed to return the next year.  This time the villagers did not have a lion to protect them.  They solved the problem by creating a costume likeness of a lion and two villagers used it to scare Nian away.  This is the reason the lion dance is performed every Chinese New Year.  The legend also says that loud noises from the drum, other instruments, and firecrackers helped to scare the Nian away.  Red is worn during the New Year’s celebration because it was believed Nian was afraid of the color red.  "Nian” has become the Chinese word for year.

The Story of the Monk

Once upon a time a monk had a dream in which there were many sorrows and evils plaguing the land.  The monk prayed and asked the gods how he could prevent these evils from occurring.  The gods told him that a lion would protect them and fight back the evils.  The Chinese people had never seen a lion before, but had heard stories that the lion was the king of all the other animals.  The monk then combined all the lucky or magical animals he could think of and created the lion.