The lion dance, also called the 'lion lantern', is a form of traditional dance performed on joyous festivals and big occasions, such as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). It is a dance which imitates a lion's various movements and actions, performed in a lion costume, accompanied by the music of beating drums and gong instruments.
It is believed that the lion is an auspicious animal that brings good luck. Therefore, a lion dance is performed to pray for good luck during the Spring Festival or during other celebrations.
The lion dance is an excellent Chinese folk art that has spread across the world, courtesy of local Chinese communities and immigrant groups who have settled in different countries, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore. Also, the overseas Chinese people in European countries and America have established many lion dance clubs, performing on Chinese festivals or on big occasions.
Opinions about the origin of the lion dance are widely divided. The most reliable one is this:
In traditional Chinese culture, the lion, like the dragon and the Chinese unicorn (麒麟), was only an animal which existed in myth, and there were no actual lions in China. Before the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), only a few lions had reached the Central Plains from the western area of ancient China (now Xinjiang).
At that time, people mimicked the appearance and actions of the newly arrived lions in a performance, which developed into the lion dance in the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280) and then became popular with the rise of Buddhism in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589). In the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the lion dance was one of the court dances.
During its thousand-year development, the lion dance was divided into two styles: the southern lion dance and the northern lion dance.
The northern lion dance has close relations to wushu (martial arts). Usually, a young lion is performed by a single person and an adult lion is performed by a duo.
Both performers are in lifelike lion dance costumes, so that the performers become an integral part of the lion: their lower limbs are in trousers which are the same color as the lion's body, and their yellow-colored shoes are in the shape of the lion's claws.
In the adult lion dance, one performer stands in front to hold the lion's head, and the other bends his waist to make the lion's body move. The lion, under its instructions, gives performances such as rolling, wrestling, leaping, jumping, climbing, or worshiping.
The southern lion dance originated from Guangdong, and it is famous in Hong Kong, Macau, and the hometowns of overseas Chinese people.
The southern lion dance is also performed in pairs, and the performers wear a lion costume.
The southern lion dance is a performance based on the study of a lion's behavior. The southern lion dance puts an emphasis on actions like scratching, shaking himself, and licking his fur, which makes a performance vivid and entertaining. Moreover, there are some skillful performances, such as playing with a ball, which includes swallowing it.