Buddhism facts

9 facts about the lion dance

Every winter, at the turn of the lunar calendar, the lion dancers put on a lively performance, frolicking to the rhythm of beating drums and crashing cymbals. It is a dazzling spectacle meant to attract good luck and prosperity, and as such honors celebrations like the Lunar New Year, birthdays or weddings where Chinese diasporas have landed around the world. Here are nine things you might not know about the ancient tradition.

1. The prevalence of lions in Chinese culture comes from Central Asia and Persia.

Lions have never inhabited China historically, so how did felines become such a common cultural item? Their origin in Chinese culture begins in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 AD), when the Silk Road was established to connect China with Europe. Along the way, emissaries from Persian and Central Asian states offered lions to the Chinese emperor. The popularity of this imperial beast then spread from the high courts to the masses. Lions also play an important role in Buddhist mythology, which began to spread throughout China at the end of the Han dynasty.

2. The lion dance is over 1000 years old.

After lions were introduced into the popular imagination, the animal may have been incorporated into existing traditions of animal pantomimes. Historical records from the Three Kingdoms period (220–289 CE) describe people dressed in lion costumes for Buddhist festivities, and later in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) the lion dance became a feast of court well documented.

3. There are different lion dance styles which vary by region.

Although rooted in China, the lion dance has spread throughout East Asia, with each region adding its own local variations. An array of styles abounds in Japan and Korea. In Indonesia, lion dancers wear huge fur coats with large heads. The white and green snow lion is emblematic of Tibet, while Fujian Province created a demonic green lion to represent the Manchurian invaders in the 17th century.

In China, lion dance can be broadly divided into Northern and Southern styles. The northern lion is red and yellow with a shaggy fringe, and is usually performed with a male and a female and sometimes small cubs. The southern lion, native to Guangdong province, is the most common type internationally. They usually come with a fur trim and a range of flamboyant colors, and are further subdivided into futsan and hoksan fashions. The former is supposed to look more aggressive and the latter more feline and playful.

4. Lion dancing was briefly banned in Hong Kong because rival gangs hid weapons in their costumes.

During the Cultural Revolution, the lion dance was considered primitive, so the tradition was purged from much of mainland China. The custom, however, flourished in Hong Kong, where students practiced it in martial arts schools. Because the lion dance takes many of its basic stances and movements from kung fu, schools would use it to show off their prowess against martial arts academies.

Things took a violent turn, however, when martial arts schools began teaming up with the Hong Kong Triads, a local organized crime syndicate. Rival gangs hid knives in their costumes to slash during competition, and performing a lion dance became an excuse to settle territorial disputes. This led to a temporary ban in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, after some reputation management, lion dancing is once again a famous custom, assuming you have a permit.

5. The Lion Dance features prominently in several Jet Li films.

If you want to see lion dancing and martial arts in action, check out Jet Li’s Once upon a time in China III (1992) and Once upon a time in China IV (1993), where the lion dance style of southern China is central to the plot. To discover the Nordic style, look Shaolin II Temple (1984) and Shaolin martial arts (1986). If you are more of a fan of Jackie Chan, his first film The young master (1980) opens with an iconic lion dance battle.

6. Women were not allowed to do the lion dance.

Martial arts academies were historically fraternities, so women were generally excluded from practicing the lion dance. Since the martial arts fraternity paradigm has largely dissolved, dance troupes have gradually warmed up to women joining their ranks. Today, there are several female-led lion dance troupes around the world.

7. The lion dance makes appearances in the Guinness World Records.

In January 2011, the Hong Kong Dragon and Lion Festival Preparatory Committee held a bonanza with 1,111 lions – a total of 2,222 performers – dancing through the streets of Hong Kong for the Lunar New Year. It became the biggest couple lion dance in history.

Later that year, another record was set when 3,971 school children in Taiwan each donned a lion costume and performed the world’s largest lion dance performance.

8. The Chinese Malays invented the extreme sport of high pole lion dancing.

The lion dance has always been performed on the ground or in small obstacle courses, with lions leaping over chairs, balance beams or overturned vases in a show of balance and athleticism. This acrobatic show was kicked up a notch when Chinese Malays started performing routines on tall wooden stilts. In the early 90s, it became a standardized arena of metal poles ranging from 4 to 8 feet in height, and lion dancing as a competitive sport was born.

Performances are scored out of 10. To impress the judges, teams must choreograph a seven- to 10-minute routine where they leap between poles while performing acrobatic stunts. The most prestigious international competition has been held every two years at Resorts World Genting in Malaysia since 1994. In the 2018 games, 36 different teams from 16 countries competed against each other.

9. The lion dance gets a makeover.

Chinese Malays are not the only artists to revisit an ancient tradition. Crews from Singapore and Hong Kong incorporated LED lights, EDM and hip hop into their routines. Kwok Hong Kong’s Kung Fu and Dragon Lion Dance Team is putting on a show with hip hop dancers dressed in Tron-like costumes dancing alongside flashy Chinese lions synced to EDM.

This story originally took place in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.