Los Angeles Lion Dance Troupe
|The lion is an animal that is much respected in Chinese culture, although it is not indigenous to China. Lions are believed to bring good fortune and ward off evil because legend has it that the emperor had a dream one night in which a strange looking animal saved his life. The next morning, the emperor described the dream to his ministers. One minister told the emperor that the strange animal resembled a creature from the West, a lion. Since the strange animal saved the emperor in his dream, the lion quickly became a symbol of good luck throughout China. It was believed that a dancing lion chased away evil spirits. This is why they often guard (in pairs) the entrance to houses and large buildings.|
Whatever the origins, the Lion dance is an essential ceremony for the opening of new businesses, or even at traditional Chinese weddings. Lion dances can be very lengthy requiring excellent physical conditioning and stamina. Therefore, the dance troupe always belongs to a Chinese martial arts school. The lion is animated by two performers and the whole spectacle is accompanied by music, which matches the tempo of the lion's movements. The lion's mouth and eyes open and close and a beard hangs down from the lion's lower jaw - the longer the beard, the more venerable the school that performs the dance. At the opening of new businesses and restaurants, the lion is usually rewarded with a lettuce hanging on a string (there is always a gift of 'good luck' money attached to the "food"), which it must reach up and grab between its jaws.
This tradition dates back to the Ching dynasty when Chinese patriots were rebelling against the Ching (Manchu) overlords. The lion dance was performed all over the area where the revolution was taking place. Under the cover of the festival, the 'performers/revolutionaries' were exchanging information and the money they had collected from various rebel groups. In those days the performer with the lion head would yell "choi ching" ("get the Ching") in order that any rebels present would know that he was one of them and could receive secret messages. If there were any Ching informants in the audience they would immediately recognize the performer's yell. Therefore, since the word ching sounds like the word chiang meaning "green" (as in lettuce or money) the password was changed. The "yell" then became "choi chiang" ("get the green") and is still used today as the name of that particular type of lion dance.
Elements of Lion Dancing
The framework of the lion head is constructed of bamboo and wire, with brightly colored paper fleshing out its shape. Within the head are bamboo levers and pull-strings that allow the lead dancer to manipulate the lion's mouth, eyes, and ears. A long sheet of bright, multi-colored cloth forms the body and tail of the lion (sometimes the lion will have an extra fur tail). Usually two dancers perform as the lion: one carries the head, another becomes the lion's tail. The lion head is characterized by quick, lively movements, and many times during the performance the lion head is raised high above the dancer. The footwork used by the lead dancer incorporates all of the various kung-fu stances and kicks. It is the dancer under the lion head who controls the mouth, ear, and eye movements, creating the lion's attitude and giving him personality. "Not only must the lion dancer under the head excel at kung-fu, but he has to understand and imitate the lion's expression and habits. The idea is to make the papier-mâché lion appear real," Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong explains. The dancer performing in the lion tail is equally important. He must duplicate the lead dancer's stances and footwork while remaining in an awkward, stooped posture while his vision is restricted. Both lion dancers must work especially hard on stance training to improve their strength: The heavy lion head requires a person with strong shoulders and arms; since the dancer in the lion tail is bent over all of the time, he must have a strong back and legs. There are also different types of lions that represent a variety of attitudes and that fit specific lion dancing ceremonies. A black lion is known as a fighting lion, and he represents youth, brings good luck, and likes to play. Grandmaster Wong reminisces about serious lion dancing traditions in ancient China: "In the old days the meeting of two black lions from different kung-fu schools at a lion dancing often meant a fight between the two rival schools. However, today the black lion is a symbol of kung-fu's history." The black lion's opposite is a flower-faced lion with a white beard. This lion represents maturity, wisdom, seniority, calm, and peace. A famous Chinese historical character, General Kwan Kung, is portrayed by a red-faced, black-bearded lion. The two colors illustrate Kwan Kung's righteousness and courage. A yellow lion represents Kwan Kung's older brother, General Liu Pi, and depicts his bravery and kindness. The black-faced, black-bearded fighting lion signifies the fearlessness of Kwan Kung's younger brother, General Chang Fei.
Lions vary over China, with northern lions performing all sorts of difficult and skillful acrobatics such as balancing with all four feet on a large ball, while the southern lion is very colorful, lovely and ferocious.