What is Lion Dance?


Happy Lunar New Year! Amongst the festivities in Australia, you’d be hard pressed to find a Lunar New Year celebration in Australia that doesn’t involve a lion dance
But what is Lion Dance? What should you expect if you go see one?

Lion dance is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture and other Asian countries in which performers mimic a lion’s movements in a lion costume to bring good luck, fortune and chase away evil spirits. It is usually performed during the Lunar New Year and other traditional, cultural and religious festivals.

The two main types of lion dance in China are the Northern and Southern Lions. The majority of lions in Australian Lunar New Year celebrations are the Southern Lions and this is what we will focus on today.


There are a number of myths which explain the origin of the Southern Lion: one story relates that the dance originated as a celebration in a village where a mythical monster called Nian was successfully driven away; while another has it that the Qianlong Emperor dreamed of an auspicious animal while on a tour of Southern China, and ordered that the image of the animal be recreated and used during festivals.

During the Ching Dynasty was a time of war and internal problems, the Emperor of China at that time after a day in battle had a vivid dream. The dream was of a strange beast playing. This beast was lager than a dog but smaller than a horse and although it looked fierce its behaviour was unseemlier to a tiger. The next day being very interested to know what the beast was, the Emperor went to consult his official advisers. The advisers explained to him that this beast he saw was called a lion.

Later that day, after a glorious battle, which the Emperor’s armies won, the same dream, occurred to him. This time being very disturbed by the recurrence of the dream he went to consult his senior and most experienced advisers and consultants. These people explained to the Emperor that the lion was a gift from the gods. Since no lions existed within China, the god’s gift to him was to let the Emperor have everything. (This was deemed a good omen from the gods who favoured the Emperor).

On returning back to the palace after winning the battle, celebrations were evident everywhere. But still in the Emperor’s mind was the dream of the strange beast. Here on ‘talking to many of the Emperor’s court advisers they described to him how to go about and construct the features of this mystical lion. They explained how to use paper, cloth and bamboo to make this beast. The next battle the Emperor had, the lion became the symbol of good fortune for the armies. The battle was won and since then the result of this good omen is what we now call the lion dance.

The lion’s head is traditionally constructed using papier-mâché over a bamboo frame covered with gauze, then painted and decorated with fur. The lion consists of two people, where the front person mans the head of the lion and the back person is the tail. The person controlling the head of the lion controls the facial expressions and mannerisms of the lion head. This is created by blink the eyes, moving the ears, flapping the mouth, changing the angles of the head and moving the waist and feet.  The tail is used not only to bring life to the back of the lion but also lifts the front person (head) to perform acrobatic tricks.


The fundamental movements of Lion Dance originate in Chinese martial arts. Dancers are usually martial art members of the local kung fu school, and some train hard to master the skill as one of the disciplines of their martial art. Traditionally, the footwork of the performer will represent the style of the kung fu school.
The Chinese Lion Dance is performed accompanied by the music of beating of a drum, cymbals and gongs. Instruments synchronise to the lion dance movements, and are also symbolic of the lion.

The drum is the heartbeat of the lion… The cymbals are the atmosphere around the lion… The gong is the conscience of the lion

During the Chinese New Year, lion dance troupes will visit the Asian community to perform the traditional custom of “cai qing”, literally meaning “plucking the greens”, whereby the lion plucks the green lettuce that are hung in front of the shops and restaurants. The greens (qing) are tied together with a red envelope containing money. In Chinese ‘cǎi’ also sounds like ‘cài’ (meaning vegetable) and ‘cái’ (meaning fortune). The lion will approach the greens like a curious cat, to eat the green and spit it out but keep the red envelope (which is the reward for the lion troupe). Occasionally the greens are hung very high or with obstacles which only a well-trained martial artist could reach while dancing with a heavy lion head. This is an opportunity for the troupe to display their skills.
Going to see a Lion Dance this year? Check out this handy guide from irenydraws
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