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What is a Lion Dance?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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The lion dance is a Chinese performing art which has been perfected over a period of over a thousand years. Many people are familiar with lion dancers because they often appear at Chinese cultural events in China and abroad, especially during lunar new year parades. This ancient tradition is said to bring luck and good fortune, as lions are viewed as lucky animals in Chinese culture.

In a lion dance, one or two performers wear a costume which is designed to look like a lion, although the resemblance is often quite superficial, as lion dancers were multicolored fur and heavy masks with details in gold and other colors. The dancers move around energetically, performing a wide variety of tricks including acrobatics like jumping up onto each other's shoulders, and the dance generally follows a rough narrative, with the lion first emerging slowly and then growing bolder and capering through the streets.

Because lion dancing requires physical skills, many lion dance troupes are associated with martial arts organizations. Lion dancing has long been affiliated with kung fu, with many of the finest lion dancers coming from kung fu schools. The martial arts skills learned by these dancers allow them to engage in the strenuous demonstrations of agility required for lion dancing.

The lion dance performance varies, depending on whether the performers are of the Northern or Southern school. In the South, the dance tends to be more ritualistic and symbolic, while Northern dancers perform lion dances for entertainment as well as good luck. In both cases, the lion dancers participate in a tradition known as choi cheng, in which they chew lettuce and other greens and then spit them out on the crowd.

Choi cheng is typically only performed during the Chinese New Year, and it is meant to bring about prosperity and good fortune. In exchange for their performance, the dancers often receive traditional red envelopes filled with money or treats, thus returning the luck to the lions.

If you are interested in seeing a lion dance performed, many troupes have regular demonstrations or allow people to sit in on rehearsals. You can also attend a lunar new year parade if one is held in your area. Many cities around the world hold lavish Chinese New Year parades which feature numerous lion dancing troupes along with displays of other traditional Chinese arts.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By rachelpeter — On Mar 10, 2008

I live in Singapore, and lion dances are a real nuisance (at least to me) during the Chinese New Year because of the loud drums and cymbal 'music' that always accompanies it. I realize you didn't mention the loud chinese drums that always accompanies the dance. They use thick wooden drumsticks and a big drum that is very bassy and can be heard from probably 1km away if there aren't any sound buffers

I learned about this in Chinese class a very long time ago, so my memory is very hazy, but that there is a story or legend behind the lion dance. A very long time ago, some chinese general was out numbered in a battle or something, or he was up against elephants. so to scare away the enemy he got his soldiers to dress up in the lion costume to scare the elephants, leading to widespread chaos and his eventual victory.

I can't really remember exactly, but at least something interesting for you to research on!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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