Traditional Chinese Lion Dance



The lion dance is one of the most popular Chinese folk performances that is seen around the world today. It is performed during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, and other festivals and auspicious occasions such as business openings, birthdays and weddings. For almost two thousand years, the lion dance has been a festive spectacle that appeals to both old and young alike.

In the West, people who are unfamiliar with Chinese lion dance performances often mistakenly confuse the lion dance with the dragon dance. The lion dance is performed by a team of two in each lion. The dragon on the other hand has a much longer body and requires a team of up to twenty people to perform. These two types of performances obviously  require very different skills to imitate their movements and to express their symbolic religious and cultural significance.

 Origins of the lion dance

The origins of the Chinese lion dance have become shrouded in antiquity and myth largely due to limited historical records or research. Many old world cultures around the world have their own form of masked or costumed dances mimicking legendary beasts and fabled creatures telling stories of the triumph of good over evil. The Chinese lion dance is no exception. It originated as a peasant folk activity in rural areas and, in a country as vast as China, regional influences and traditions play a part in its varied appearances. These variations include differences in body shape and length, facial construct, and colour. Their movements have convey different meanings according to their regional origins. The musical accompaniment are also different in rhythm and intensity.

One of the most popular but unlikely stories about the origins of the lion dance revolves around a mythical beast that makes an appearance once a year to terrorize the locals and devour the crops and humans more than two thousand years ago. It is called the “nien” beast. The word “nien”  means year and so every time the beast appears it marked the beginning of a new year. The story goes that someone devised an idea to scare away the beast by dressing up as a lion. The imposter lion made from rattan, paper mache and cloth, would be accompanied by loud fire crackers and loud musical instruments. It is said that this plan succeeded and from then on the “nien” beast ceased to appear. It thus became a tradition for the locals to perform the lion dance to loud music and fire crackers to herald the arrival of spring and to drive away the “nien” creature and other evil spirits. This tradition was handed down from generation to generation and spread to other parts of China.

The story above has been told children of each generation. The simplistic story would seem implausible to educated folks but it has served as a convenient simple folk story to keep children of each generation amused.

The lion, of course, is not native to China. In Buddhism, the lion is a regal animal and protector of the Buddha. It is therefore likely that the imagery of the lion came to China with the spread of Buddhism, relayed to China from the West as it were during ancient times by traders, missionaries, itinerant monks, bandits and other travelers on the Silk Route. The first known records of any mention of the lion dance dates back to Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏朝) (386-534 A.D.) in northern China. It was during this time when Buddhism was first established in China.

 Northern Lion Dance

Northern Lions

Both the northern and southern lions are auspicious symbols of good tidings performed by two performers and that is probably the only thing in common between the two. The Northern Lion (北獅) resembles a large shaggy-coated  Pekingese dog with red, orange and yellow fur. It has a larger head which is usually gold in colour and has a flatter face compared to its southern cousin. It mimics the facial expressions and body movements of a lion or a Pekingese dog in a playful manner. Northern Lions are perform in pairs. Traditionally the performers are part of cultural dance troupes skilled in acrobatics. The northern lion performance is therefore more for entertainment rather than for ceremonial purposes. 

Southern Lion Dance

The Southern Lion (南獅), also performed by two performers, besides being an entertaining spectacle is deeply steeped in southern Chinese martial culture as well as religious significance and folklore. Where the Northern Lion’s expression is one of playfulness, the Southern Lion performance is an expression of energy and strength. The movements and behaviour of the traditional Southern Lion follows protocol and etiquette  which originate from martial traditions and religious beliefs. Each movement has a meaning and is purposeful in expression.

The body of the traditional Southern Lion is usually between 8.5 to 9.0 ft long, thus longer than the Northern Lion. Guangdong Province in Southern China is the traditional home of the Southern Lion. The classic traditional design of the Southern Lion is called the Futsan Lion (佛山獅) , named after the city of Futsan City, famous for its rich martial art heritage and lion dance. The Futsan lion was so named largely due to the fact that historically lion dance of the Hung Gar kung fu style was the most famous and became the standard by which traditional lion dance were measured.   

 The Southern Lion Dance tradition

The colours of the Southern Lion are generally varied and come in many different combinations. There is a tradition in terms of certain colours which tells spectators something about the occasion or the group that is performing. Traditionally, a lion with a long white beard usually signifies an elderly kung fu master who is head of the group while one with a short black beard represents a younger master. In present times, as many of these traditions are now overtaken by aesthetic considerations the colour of the beard or bristles may not fully represent the personality of the group.

 Futsan Lion 

Lions of the Futsan tradition have bristles on their faces and are generally larger and heavier than contemporary lions. The tails measure up to 3 meters in length. The performers are not fully covered and do not wear special costume other than the uniform of the martial art school. Traditional lions were made with a greater degree of craftsmanship and the patterns on the lion head are usually more elaborate and intricate. Some of these lions were real works of art as they were expected to not only look good but the design of the face and head should convey a majestic and powerful look. Some of the most famous craftsman in Hong Kong who made exquisite Futsan lions traded under the brand name Bak Wan or White Cloud. Unfortunately, they have ceased to operate about ten years ago due to competition from cheaper but lower quality lions from China and South East Asia.

The Futshan tradition of lion dance represents performance groups that have proper kung fu training. All students were expected to first learn kung fu before learning the lion dance. Compared to many contemporary style of lion dance (see Hoksan Lion below), Futsan Lions are more robust and energetic, relying more on their martial skills to demonstrate balance and agility, strength and endurance, kung fu footwork and strong stances, while exhibiting deep understanding of many traditional protocols including proper behavior when approaching doorways, obstacles, religious places, business premises and other places. This shows that the kung fu master is not only a teacher of kung fu but also a teacher of good manners and a man of cultivation. Failure to observe these protocols means lack of understanding of traditional customs and would render the school a laughing stock.

A magnificent Futsan Lion

A magnificent Futsan Lion

At the commencement of the lion dance, the two performers would demonstrate the “kuen lai” (拳禮), which comprise the traditional kung fu salute and abbreviated sequences of few kung fu moves to signify the style of kung fu from which the group hails.

The most senior students would perform the lion dance for the above reasons as they are expected to have the maturity and knowledge of these customs. The starring role of the lion head is especially important and is traditionally performed by the top disciple of the school as a representative of his master. The role of the lion tail is just as important as it is an integral part of the whole lion. The students playing the tail has to be strong in order to support the lion head in the more acrobatic maneuvers.

In addition to the actual performance of the lion, performers must understand how to behave when they meet the lion from another kung fu school. The protocol involves a number of gestures including bows, avoidance of direct eye contact, restrained actions and avoiding the use of aggressive movements so as to show respect to the other lion. Non observance of these protocols could be interpreted as a sign of disrespect or even a challenge which may lead to conflict and street fights.

 Hoksan Lion

Another style of Southern Lion is called the  Heshan lion or Hoksan lion (鶴山獅), meaning literally Crane Mountain lion. This is a relatively new style of lion dance. It first became popular in South East Asia about forty years ago, originating from Fujian Province in China and, due to the large numbers of overseas Fujian communities in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the Hoksan lion is now more widespread because it is easier to make. The craftsmanship required in making a Hoksan lion is less exacting than that required for a Futsan lion, which is more elaborate and requires the craftsman to have an intimate knowledge of its traditions. Consequently, the Heshan lion is also cheaper to make.

The Hoksan lion looks quite different from the Futsan lion. It has a flatter nose and a protruding mouth giving it a duck-like appearance. In addition, the Hoksan lion has a shorter body than the Futsan lion.  Instead of bristles, the Hoksan lion spots fur. The two performers usually wear pants with the same colour and embellishments as that of the lion’s body so that in effect the Hoksan lion not only looks but also behaves like a cross between a Southern and a Northern Lion.

Hoksan Lion

Hoksan Lion

Strictly speaking, traditional lion dance purists do not use the Hoksan lion, which with its shorter body and less awe-inspiring appearance, is not considered a traditional kung fu lion.   Presently, this distinction is often lost to even Chinese martial art schools. This has changed in modern times largely due to two factors. The advent of lion dance competitions that place more emphasis on acrobatics and entertainment instead of kung fu skills has been a major factor in making the Hoksan lion more popularly used. Many lion dance performers these days have no training in martial arts, but are usually teenagers or very young performers who are lighter and more nimble and therefore more suited to performing on high poles. Being lighter and shorter the Hoksan lion makes it easier for performers, with no kung fu training, to prance around on high poles and to jump onto high platforms. The focus is thus more on crowd entertainment by mimicking the actions of the lion in a playful manner. These peformers usually do not observe proper lion dance protocols. As modern day audiences have little knowledge of kung fu traditions and could relate more readily with a performance that aims to entertain rather than demonstrate its martial prowess, they are oblivious to the performers’ lack of proper kung fu training or footwork. Such lion dances should strictly be called “southern lion northern dance” (南獅北舞).

 Chinese New Year Lion Dance

The lion dance is an integral part of celebrations during Chinese New Year. The appearance of the lion is considered an auspicious event and is roundly welcome by shop-keepers. The performance of the lion symbolizes success in getting food and wealth, thus associating it with prosperity and good tidings.

It is customary for lion dance groups to be invited by restaurants to visit them as to symbolically bring good luck and prosperity as well as entertain their customers. Chinese martial art schools and associations will also parade the streets of the local Chinatowns to visit the shops. The restaurant owners and shop keepers will place money in a red envelope (紅包 or莉事) tied to a bunch of lettuce, called the “green” (青) at the door or from the awning for the lion. The “green” represents food for the lion. The act of the lion getting the lettuce and the red packet is called “cai ching” (採青), which literally means “plucking the green”. The street parade where the lion plucks the greens from the shops is called (街採青).

The lion dance is traditionally a very noisy affair. In addition to the drums, cymbals and gongs that accompany the lion’s movements, red fire crackers are set off. The colour red represents life and energy. Noise represents the sounds of life and a busy, prospering business and a healthy lively household.

 Diem Jing (點精)

 Before a new lion can be used to perform, there is an important ceremony called the “diem jing”, which literally means “dotting the spirit”, which must be performed first. This involves an important elderly person of some standing in the community or association who dots the eyes, nose, ears, mouth and feet of the lion while a spiritual mantra is recited. This ritual effectively invokes life into the lion. A red sash is then tied to the lion’s horn and other auspicious adornments such as gold leaf “flower” sheets are secured onto the horn with the red sash. The lion during the ceremony is asleep and, on completion of the ritual, awakens. The performance of the lion in such an event is called the Awakening Lion who yawns, stretches, scratches its body and then rises up, before going about investigating its surroundings and prance around full of new-born energy and spirit.

 Plucking the Green (採青)

The host may present the lion with a riddle which the lion must solve in order to pluck the green. The manner in which the lion dance team solves the riddle demonstrates their knowledge of Chinese lion dance and kung fu customs. They have to show their understanding of the cultural significance and meaning of an obstacle that is presented to them. A lion dance performance that exhibits this wisdom and knowledge while observing all the required protocols as well as demonstrating gracefulness and power in his movements will be highly respected and well rewarded by the host. For this reason, traditional schools are especially particular about their performance as it reflects on their martial art skills.

A lion dance performance must be lively, showing both energy and spirit. A lethargic lion will be laughed at by spectators. As a protector of  the common folk, the lion must be courageous and strong while showing restraint when required. It is cautious when approaching an object or an entrance or pathway in case there is a trap. The lion is also well mannered and will observe all the required etiquette expected of a cultured lion. When approaching a green it has to show caution, wisdom, understanding of etiquette, bravery and skill. A lion that goes for a green in an impatient or unruly manner will be laughed at as a ignorant and hungry lion (盲眼餓獅 )

The following are just a few of the many traditional obstacles or greens presented to lions:           

(a)    Water green

(b)   Bridge-head green

(c)    Under-bridge green

(d)   High green

(e)    Mountain green

(f)    Greens named after animals such as snake green, scorpion green, tiger green, horse green and crab green to name a few.

(g)   Five Elements green

(h)   Eight Trigrams green

 Not all greens are suitable for every occasion. Some are more appropriate as part of an entertaining performance while others are more suited for auspicious occasions such as a business opening, New Year, birthday or wedding.

 Musical instruments

The musical instruments used in a lion dance performance typically comprise a large drum, at least two pairs of brass cymbals and a copper gong.

In ancient times, the drum was the instrument by which the commander’s orders were conveyed to his troops in the battlefield. The drum was used to rally the troops, lift their spirits, change the tempo of the battle, change battle formations, and direct troop movements. Strictly speaking, in traditional kung fu lion dances in days gone by, the drummer directs the movements of the lion. The drummer is often the chief instructor or senior student who dictates the rhythm as a way of directing the lion’s behaviour. This drum-lion relationship requires a high degree of skills on the two lion dance performers as well as the drummer. The performers had to change their movements immediately when the drummer changes the tempo or the beat. Such skills require full time training. These days, it is more common to have the drummer follow the lion’s movements as the lion-drum sequence is easier for all concerned to master. Regardless of whether the lion follows the drum or vice versa the drumming has to be lively, energetic, strong and at the same time creative and full of verve. Drumming that is lifeless, weak, or monotonous and predictable are considered poor.

 Li Iu Ling Choy Lee Fut Lion

Li Iu Ling Choy Lee Fut Traditional Lion Dance

Li Iu Ling Choy Lee Fut Traditional Lion Dance Team

The lion dance style of The Li Iu Ling Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu Group is the traditional Futsan lion. Our lions are typical Futsan lions with black bristles. Our lion dance performers exhibit agile Choy Lee Fut kung fu footwork, strong stances, energetic and colourful choreography and a deep understanding of Chinese etiquette and customs. At a time when most lion dance groups opt for the “fast food” approach with short cuts, convenience and mass production, we steadfastly remain faithful to true kung fu lion dance traditions in line with the core values of The Li Iu Ling Martial Art Alumni.

The chief lion dance instructors of The Li Iu Ling Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu Group are two very experienced and knowledgeable teachers – Master Victor Wong and Mr Tommy Kan, who trained our first batch of lead performers that include lead lion head performers, Stephen Neal and Christian Allen, and main drummer, Tim Emslie, all Choy Lee Fut disciples of Master Alan Yee.


Futsan is the Cantonese for Foshan in Mandarin

Hoksan is the Cantonese for Heshan in Mandarin.

Lion dance schools with a strong martial art tradition may also have their lions represent the characters of the legendary three heroes from the Kingdom of Shu, of The Three Kingdoms Era (三國) in Chinese history. A yellow or multi-coloured face with long white beard that signifies seniority and wisdom, represents Liu Pei (劉備 ), the eldest of three sworn blood brothers who became emperor of Shu Kingdom.  A red face with long black beard represents General Guan Yu (關羽), the second brother who had a red face and long flowing beard. The body or tail is in red, black and white. This lion signifies righteousness for which Guan Yu (also popularly known as Guan Di or Guan Gong, as well as somewhat erroneously known as the God of War in the West) was renown and respected by friend and foe alike. Guan Yu was a great fighter whose weapon of choice was the formidable long-handle broadsword which was called Green Dragon Cold Crescent Blade, or Guan Do for short. The youngest of the three sworn brothers was Zhang Fei (張飛), who had a dark complexion and possessed enormous strength. He was famous for his temper, courage and fearsome fighting prowess. The Zhang Fei lion typically has a black and white body, green and black face, an iron horn (black or metallic in colour), chipped or torn ears, and short thick black bristles instead of a beard. This is the fighter lion, often used to represent a younger kung fu instructor.


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