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Lion dance
Lion dance costume.jpg
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 舞獅
Simplified Chinese 舞狮
Japanese name
Kanji 獅子舞
Korean name
Hangul 사자춤
Hanja 獅子춤
Vietnamese name
Quốc ngữ Múa lân

Lion dance (simplified Chinese: 舞狮traditional Chinese: 舞獅pinyin: wǔshī) is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture, in which performers mimic a lion's movements in a lion costume. The lion dance is often mistaken as dragon dance. An easy way to tell the difference is that a lion is operated by two people, while a dragon needs many people. Also, in a lion dance, the performers' faces are covered, since they are inside the lion. In a dragon dance, the performers can be seen since the dragon is held upon poles. Basic lion dance fundamental movements can be found in most Chinese martial arts.

Asiatic lions[1] found in nearby India are the ones depicted in the Chinese culture.



The lion dance originated in India[citation needed] [2][3][4]. The lion is traditionally regarded as a guardian creature. It is featured in Buddhist lore, being the mount of Manjusri. Shishimai is a version of the Lion Dance practiced in Japanese culture (shishimai originally included danced involving other animal symbols, including deer).[1][2]

Chinese lion dances can be broadly categorised into two styles, Northern (北獅) and Southern (南獅). The Northern dance was used as entertainment for the imperial court and elsewhere. The northern lion is usually red, orange, and yellow (sometimes with green fur for the female lion), shaggy in appearance, with a golden head. The northern dance is acrobatic and may include dangerous stunts.

The Southern dance is more symbolic. It is usually performed as a ceremony to exorcise evil spirits and to summon luck and fortune. The southern lion exhibits a wide variety of colour and has a distinctive head with large eyes, a mirror on the forehead, and a single horn at center of the head.

The Lion dance is often confused with the Chinese Dragon Dance, which features a team of around ten or more dancers. The Lion Dance usually consists of two people.

Association with kung fu

The lion dance has close relations to kung fu and the dancers are usually members of the local kung fu club. They practice in their club and some train hard to master the skill. In general, it is seen that if a school has many lions, it demonstrates the success of the school.

Northern style

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In the north the lions usually appear in pairs. Northern lions have shaggy orange and yellow hair with a red bow on its head to indicate a male lion, or a green bow to represent a female.

During a performance, northern lions resemble Pekingese or Fu Dogs and movements are very life-like. Acrobatics are very common, with stunts like lifts or balancing on a giant ball. Northern lions sometimes appear as a family, with two large "adult" lions and a pair of small "young lions". Ninghai, in Ningbo, is called the "Homeland of the Lion Dance" (狮舞之乡) for the northern variety.

Southern Cantonese style

Twin red and black Chinese lions at Seattle night market, Seattle (USA).
Lion dancer at Chinese New Year festival in Boston's Chinatown.
Lion dancers inside a Chinese bakery during during Chinese New Year celebrations in Seattle.
Lion dance at Chinese New Year festival in Boston's Chinatown.
Lion dancer at Chinese New Year festival in Boston's Chinatown about to kick lettuce.

Guangdong is the homeland of the southern style. The southern horned lions are believed to be Nians.

The Cantonese style can be further divided into Fuo Shan (Buddha Mountain), He shan (Crane Mountain), Fuo-He (minor style that exhibits a hybrid of Fuo Shan and He Shan), Jow Ga (minor style performed by practitioners of Jow family style kung fu, exampled by the Wong People), and the Green Lion (Qing1 Shi1 - popular with the Fukien/Hokkien and Taiwanese).

The styles of lion dance do vary widely, but the lion head designs exhibit greater differences. The traditional Fuo Shan lion has bristles instead of fur and weighs more than the current in-fashion ones. The tails are extremely long and are perpendicular to the head for three fourths of the tail's length, then it goes parallel to the head. The eyes also swivel left and right. On the back there are gold foiled rims and traditional characters saying the troupe's name. Older Liu Bei lions also have black in the tail while the new ones do not. The Gwan Gung has a red and black tail with white trim. The Huang Joon has a full yellow tail with white trim. The Zhang Fei is infrequently made, so details are unclear. All the traditional style Fuo Shan have pop-up teeth, tongue and also the interior of the tail is white; the designs of the tail are also more square and contain a diamond pattern going down the back; it is also common to see and hear bells attached to the tail. Although most lion dance costumes comes with a set of matching pants, some practitioners use black Kung-Fu pants to look more traditional. The Wong people perform the lion dance using this type of lion. The newer styles of lions for Fuo Shan replace all the bristles with fur and the tails are shorter. They eyes are fixed in place, and the tongue and teeth do not pop up. The tail is more curvy in design. The tail does not have a diamond pattern, and lacks bells. In addition, the dancers wear flashier pants which lack the ease of movement allowed when wearing Kung-Fu pants. Sometimes the newer versions use a sequin material over the traditional lacquer; even the new lacquer is shinier and does not last as long while the heavier ones do last longer with semi-dull lacquer. Recently, lion dance costumes are made very durable and some are even waterproof. Newer lions are made with modern materials such as an aluminium and laser stickers for the outer designs. While the traditional ones use bamboo, rattan and more durable layered cloth.

Fuo Shan is the style many Kung Fu schools adopt. It requires powerful moves and strength in stance. The lion becomes the representation of the Kung Fu school and only the most advanced students are allowed to perform.

The He Shan style lion, popular in many places, has grown to fame because of its richness of expression, unique footwork, magnificent-looking appearance and vigorous drumming style. The credit should go to the founder, the "Canton Lion King" 冯庚长( Feng Geng Zhang). According to records, 冯庚长was born in "沙坪越塘大朗村" village in He Shan county. His father was a secular disciple of the Shaolin Temple, and instructed him in martial arts and lion dance at an early age. Later, he further studied martial arts and Southern lion dance in Fuo Shan with fellow villager 冯了性 (a famous physician and the creator of this dance), before returning to his hometown and setting up his own training hall, teaching and researching the art of lion dance with great devotion. Given his considerable martial ability, a result of hard and dedicated training, he was able to develop a unique and outstanding version of lion dance. 冯庚长 was not only able to carry on the art, he was also particularly involved in creating new techniques through mimicking. Together with his junior 胡沛, he kept cats and studied their behaviour carefully; they were eventually able to incorporate from the "cat and mouse game" the various movements such as "Catching mouse, playing, catching birds, high escape, lying low and rolling". They also made changes to the body of the Fuo Shan lion, making it more well-built and powerful in structure, but with agile footwork and eye-catching colours, and played to the rhythm of the "Seven Star Drums". In short, in terms of expression, dance steps, build of the lion and the drumming style, he created a whole new style of lion dancing which was considered high in entertainment value and visual appeal. There are many important points which also prove 冯庚长 to have been the chief figure responsible for the creation of the He Shan style of lion dance. In the early 1920s, the He Shan lion dance was performed at Sun Yat-Sen's assuming office in Guangzhou, creating quite a sensational stir both within and outside of the province. Around 1945, He Shan lion performers were often invited to perform in many places within China and Southeast Asia during many celebratory festivals. The He Shan style was strongly favoured and sensational in Singapore, having been featured in many nationwide events, even gaining the title of "Lion King of Kings", with wide press coverage by both Chinese and English media. The noble bearing of the He Shan lion is still promoted as a tourist attraction in Singapore today, with a large banner featuring this style being placed on the tourist attraction of Sentosa. According to 冯昆杰, today's He Shan lions are the same as those created by 冯庚长 by improvising on the Fuo Shan lion; it is of a powerful and impressive build, with a "王" character on its forehead and a confident expression, and combined with the unique invention of 冯庚长, the "Seven Star Drum", the He shan lion displays a formidable show of power. Today, all it takes is the sound of the "Seven Star Drum" being played and experts will say, "The He Shan lion is here". When the Fuo Shan lion dance was brought to Singapore, a lot of works have been done to make the lion more " cat-like". Master Ho Kai Seng of Singapore He Shan Association shortened the tail of He Shan lion so that it looks more like a cat. And master Liang Zhao Fu, who is wildly known as South-east Asia drum king, created Fuo Shan 18 beats and devised a way to play the drum with not just rhythms but also gusto. The He Shan drum nowadays is composed by master Lu Xin Yao of Singapore He Shan Association.[5][6]

There is three important and the first colors of the lions. The lion with the white colored fur is considered to be the oldest of the lions. The lion with the goldish yellowish fur is the considered to be the middle child. Not the youngest or the oldest. And the black colored lion is considered to be the youngest lion so when people use this colour lion it should move fast and quick like a young child.

When the dancing lion enters a village or township, it is supposed to pay its respects first at the local temple(s), then to the ancestors at the ancestral hall, and finally through the streets to bring happiness to all the people. There are three types of lions: the golden lion, representing liveliness; the red lion, representing courage; and the green lion, representing friendship.

Three other famous lion types can also be identified: Liu Bei, Guan Gong (Cantonese: Kwan Kung) and Zhang Fei. They represent historic characters in China that were recorded in the classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. These three were blood oath brothers that swore to restore the Han dynasty.

The Liu Bei (Cantonese: Lau Pei) lion is the eldest of the three brothers and has a yellow (actually imperial yellow as he became the first emperor of the Shu-Han Kingdom) based face with white beard and fur (to denote his wisdom). It sports a multi coloured tail (white underside) with black as one of them which encompasses the colors of the five elements, as it was believed that being the Emperor, he had the blessings of the heavens and thus control of the five elements. There are three coins on the collar. This lion is used by schools with an established Sifu (teacher) or organization and is known Rui shih (Shui Shi) or The Auspicious Lion.

The Guan Gong (Cantonese: Kwan Kung) lion has a red based face, black bristles, with a long black beard (as he was also known as the "Duke with the Beautiful Beard"). The tail is red and black with white trim and a white underside. He is known as the second brother and sports two coins on the collar. This Lion is known as Hsing Shih (Shing Shi) or the Awakened Lion. This lion is generally used by most.

The Zhang Fei (Cantonese: Chang Fei) lion has a black based face with short black beard, small ears, and black bristles. The tail is black and white with white trim and a white underside. Traditionally this lion also had bells attached to the body, which served as a warning like a rattler on a rattle snake. Being the youngest of the three brothers, there is a single coin on the collar. This Lion is known as the Fighting Lion because Zhang Fei had a quick temper and loved to fight. This lion is used by clubs that were just starting out or by those wishing to make a challenge.

Later an additional three Lions were added to the group. The Green faced lion represented Zhao Yun or Zhao (Cantonese: Chiu) Zi Long. He has a green tail with white beard and fur and an iron horn. He is often called the fourth brother, this lion is called the Heroic Lion because it is said he rode through Cao Cao’s million man army and rescued Liu Bei’s infant and fought his way back out. The Yellow (yellow/orange) face and body with white beard represented Huang Zhong (Cantonese: Wong Tsung) , we was given this color when Liu Bei rose to become Emperor. This lion is called the Righteous Lion. The white colour lion is known as Ma Chao (Cantonese: Ma Chiu), he was assigned this color because he always wore a white arm band to battle against the Emperor of Wei, Cao Cao, to signify that he was in mourning for his father and brother who had been murdered by Cao Cao. Thus this lion was known as the funeral lion. This lion is never used except for a funeral for the Sifu or some important head of the group, and in such cases it is usually burned right after. Even if it is properly stored, it is not something one would want to keep, as it is symbolically inauspicious to have around. It is sometimes though, confused with the silver lion which sometimes has a white like colouring. These three along with Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were known as the “Five Tiger Generals of Shun,” each representing one of the colors of the five elements.

Chinese New Years

During the Chinese New Year, lion dancers from martial art school will visit the houses and store front of businesses to "chai ching" (採青 lit. picking the greens). The business would tie an "Hung Bao" or "Lai See" red envelope filled with money to a head of lettuce and hang it high above the front door. The lion will approach the lettuce like a curious cat, consume the lettuce and spit out the leaves but not the money. Some other types "Chai Ching" requires the lion dancers to open the lettuce carefully to retrieve the money and create a design or a pattern out of it, and place it back from where they had "eaten" it from. Sometimes the "Hung Bao" or "Lai See" is hidden inside the lettuce, or the "Hung Bao" or "Lai See" will be given later judging on how well the dancers have "designed" the lettuce. The lion dance is supposed to bring good luck and fortune to the business and the dancers receive the money as reward. The tradition becomes a mutual transaction.

Other types of "greens" (青) may also be used to challenge the troupe, for instance using pineapples, pamelos, bananas, oranges, sugar cane shoots, beer, coconuts, earthen pots or even crabs to create challenges for the performing troupes. The more difficult the challenge is, the bigger the rewards.

The dance also performed at other important occasions including Chinese festivals, business opening ceremonies and traditional weddings.

Red Chinese lion dance performing a "choi chang" in the Vancouver suburb Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.
Second Red Chinese lion dance performing a "choi chang" in the Vancouver suburb Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.

In the old days, the lettuce was hung 15 to 20 feet above ground and only a well-trained martial artists could reach the money while dancing with a heavy lion head. These events became a public challenge. A large sum of money was rewarded, and the audience expected a good show. Sometimes, if lions from multiple martial arts schools approached the lettuce at the same time, the lions are supposed to fight to decide a winner. The lions had to fight with stylistic lion moves instead of chaotic street fighting styles. The audience would judge the quality of the martial art schools according to how the lions fought. Since the schools' reputation were at stake, the fights were usually fierce but civilized. The winner lion would then use creative methods and martial art skills to reach the high-hanging reward. Some lions may dance on bamboo stilts and some may step on human pyramids formed by fellow students of the school. The performers and the schools would gain praise and respect on top of the large monetary reward when they did well. Nowadays, performances to attain the red envelope are not as rigorous but lion dance troupes still have the onus of making a good show or face the consequence of an unhappy client.

A Columbia University Lion Dance Troupe performance at MTV Chi Times Square Studio using a silver Chinese lion New York, New York, United States.

During the 1950s-60's, people who joined lion dance troupes were “gangster-like” and there was a lot of fighting amongst lion dance troupes and kung fu schools. Parents were afraid to let their children join lion dance troupes because of the “gangster” association with the members. During festivals and performances, when lion dance troupes met, there would be fights between groups. Some lifts and acrobatic tricks are designed for the lion to “fight” and knock over other rival lions. Performers even hid daggers in their shoes and clothes, which could be used to injure other lion dancers’ legs, or even attached a metal horn on their lion’s forehead, which could be used to slash other lion heads. The violence got so extreme that at one point, the Hong Kong government had to put a stop to lion dance completely. Now, as with many other countries, lion dance troupes must attain a permit from the government in order to perform lion dance. Although there is still a certain degree of competitiveness, troupes are a lot less violent and aggressive. Today, lion dance is a more sport-oriented activity. Lion dance is more for recreation than a way of living. But there are still plenty of troupes who still practice the traditional ways and taboos of the lion dance as it is practiced in the past.

Lion Dance in Modern Popular Culture


Several movies in the Once Upon a Time in China series involve plots centered around Lion Dancing, especially Once Upon a Time in China III and IV.

Jet Li has performed as a lion dancer in several of his films, including Southern style lion dancing in Once Upon a Time in China III, Once Upon a Time in China and America and Northern style lion dancing in Shaolin Temple 2, and Shaolin Temple 3.

A big budget Hong Kong action film featuring Southern style Lion Dancing was released in Hong Kong on April 26, 2007. Plans for world-wide international release have not been announced. Producers have remarked the film was influenced by the type of Lion Dancing scenes seen in Wong Fei Hong movies by both Kwan Tuk Hing, Jet Li and Zhao Wenzhuo.[citation needed]


Lion Dance is usually accompanied by drums, cymbals, and gongs.

Lion Dance in Malaysia

Muar Kun Seng Keng's "Champ Lion"

Malaysia's Kun Seng Keng (simplified Chinese: traditional Chinese: pinyin: Guān​ Shèng Gōng​​ Chinese: Fujian:; Malay: Tokong Kun Seng Keng English: Kun Seng Keng Temple” or “Temple of Victorious Lord Guān​ Gōng​”) from Muar (麻坡 Má​ pō​), a northern city in the state of Johor, Malaysia, not only has produced a Lion Dance(Chinese:; pinyin:wǔ​shī​) troupe of multiple world champion stature, but it is also home to an international lion and dragon dance training centre. The Malaysian world champ troupe boast of their overwhelming success in bagging 17+ world championships and 34+ national championship titles besides various other titles over a period of 18 years since 1992. They would receive more than 1,000 invitations from corporate houses, associations and individuals during the 15-days Lunar Chinese New Year. Its coaches and troupe members are also travelling worldwide performing and imparting skills and also exchanging knowledge in the art of lion dance.

Malaysian lion dance world champs on stilts

The secret to their success is their emphasis on the lion's expression which is lacking in other countries' lion dance troupe's performance. Coupled with their ingenious stunts, deftly choreographed moves, acrobatics and rhythmic and pulsating live music had captivated spectators and the judges in competitions. It was the troupe that has founded the lion dance on stilts.


The lion dance costumes used in these celebrations are often made in specialty craft shops in rural China and imported at considerable expense using funds raised through subscriptions and pledges made by members of local cultural and business societies.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Where does the Lion come from in ancient Chinese culture? Celebrating with the Lion Dance by B. N. Goswamy, October 6, 2002, The Tribune Newspaper, Chandigarh, India
  2. ^ Turner, Jane, but variations of the lion dance exist in other Asian cultures including mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sydney, and Singapore. (1996). The Dictionary of Art. Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 9781884446009.
  3. ^ Haskell, L. Arnold. (1960). The Worderful World of Dance. Garden City Books.
  4. ^ Eliot, Joshua. (2002). Malaysia Handbook: The Travel Guide. Footprint Travel Guides. ISBN 9781903471272.
  5. ^
  6. ^

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