Origin of the Lion Dance ~ Legend of the Nian
It was said a long time ago in China, a terrible monster called a Nian Shou would descend upon a village to terrorise its inhabitants come every spring.
Eventually the villagers decided to fight back by creating a beast of their own by crafting its head out of a bamboo mesh covered by colourful pieces of paper, and a body made of a triangular piece of cloth.
When the Nian Shou appeared next, two men wearing the beast costume came charging out while the rest of the villagers created a racket by banging on pots and pans. Getting a taste of its own medicine, the startled Nian Shou fled and was never seen again. To celebrate the momentous occasion, the villagers re-enacted the event every spring. Thus the Lion Dance became embedded as a part of Chinese New Year’s cultural mythos.
Whether there was any truth in this charming little tale, the Lion Dance today has become a main fixture in Chinese New Year. Although performances may be held throughout the entire year, it is held more regularly during the lunar new year season, especially on days when businesses reopen after the long holidays.
For most Lion Dance performers, this is probably one of their busiest times on the calendar and it’s not uncommon to see troupes hitting various locations in a single day during this period. Many see it as a cultural tradition and spectacle, while others see it as a form of athletic sport.
While neither views are wrong, its true significance actually goes a little deeper than that.
Dancing With Lions
The origin of the Lion Dance has a longer history that goes back thousands of years beyond the simple folktale of the Nian Shou.
There have been records of masked dances being performed in the palaces of ancient China. Back then, such performances were not done just for courtly entertainment, they were ritual dances meant to display the imperial might and divine power of the emperors.
The Lion Dance of today is believed to be an evolution of such masked dances. To this date, many regional variations exists but the most popular ones are the Northern and Southern Lions.
The lion head is probably the most integral part of the dance. It is not considered merely just a costume prop, but is regarded as a living spiritual being imbued with divine powers.
It is for this reason that the Lion Dance is usually called upon in traditional ceremonies to “officiate” it as it is believe the lion has the ability to help usher in positive energies and ward off negative influences.
Businesses during the Chinese New Year, especially those owned by ethnic Chinese, will often employ the services of a Lion Dance troupe to help them in this task when they reopen for a brand new year.
So if you’re fortunate enough to be graced by a lion or two at your workplace this year, try “coaxing” it into blessing your workstation but remember to leave it a red packet. You might just find yourself enjoying a prosperous year ahead.