Lion dancers are a traditional part of Chinese New Year celebrations. Although the colour, noise and movement is fascinating, many people are unaware that there is a lot of symbolism in the dance. Unlike modern dance, one must train hard under a knowledgeable Kung Fu master to learn the correct stances and movements for even the directions have a meaning. Only then can one perform a proper Lion dance at Chinese New Year because this dance is entwined with Chinese metaphysics. Feng Shui, Ze Ri and Wu Xing are all interconnected and a well performed lion dance is done with the intention of clearing away the old qi of last year, bringing in fresh new qi, scaring away noxious ghosts and spirits and giving a blessing to the business. So what are the main things to look for to understand what they’re doing?
As most Chinese New Year Lion dances are performed for businesses, let’s look at what happens there. Typically a lion dance troupe will come from one of the local Kung Fu clubs. A lion itself has two dancers under the costume. Joining them will be several musicians playing drums and cymbals and many lions will also have a trainer in the form of a man with a giant Buddha’s head or sometimes Monkey God. Yet if you’re eagle eyed, you may well spot that the restaurant you’re in has prepared for the coming of the lion!
Can you spot it? This photo was taken outside Rasa Sayam restaurant in London Chinatown for Chinese New Year 2018. Yes there is a red “happy new year” sign in the door to welcome the choi san or wealth gods, but there’s something else special in their Feng Shui.
There’s a lettuce hanging from the ceiling! The lettuce has a red packet or ang pau tied up with it. These are important parts of the traditional dance. It is the task of the lion’s trainer and musicians to get the lion not only to come to the restaurant – often a tricky job as it may need to come inside and isn’t entirely happy about the prospect – but to then leap up to ceiling and devour the lettuce!
Clearly if you can get a lion to eat lettuce from the ceiling (rather than eat your clients!), you clearly are blessed! It’s common for the lion to vomit out the lettuce all over the place straight after dining.
The ang pau red packet contains a tip for the dancers who have sweated to make the performance, just like the way when I see clients for a Feng Shui consultation, I’ll give them an ang pau to make their payment in. In Cantonese it’s called lai see, in Mandarin it’s a hong bao and in my dialect of Chinese, Hokkien, it’s an ang pau. It’s the same thing whatever the dialect and is correct etiquette when paying someone for lion dance, Feng Shui, religious or spiritual practices as well as if they are your sifu or teacher.
Here’s the full lion dance that Sifu Lee’s troupe from Pak Mei Kung Fu made for Chinese New Year 2018 in London Chinatown. They danced for a number of restaurants in Chinatown and Soho but at Rasa Sayam, I was waiting in the doorway to have noodles with friends at just the right time!
There are many different routines lion dancers used and the lettuce/cabbage one is the most common and appropriate for blessing a business. In the Far East, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan which have big communities of Chinese who left the mainland during the revolution in order to keep to their traditions, you can often see extreme lion dancing. This might mean dancing on stilts, dancing on stilts in a river or lake or jumping through bamboo canes to name but a few feats that some of the world’s best troupe’s perform.
But then there are reasons this type of crazy, acrobatic lion dancing isn’t seen everywhere…
Happy New Year to all the wonderful Kung Fu troupes keeping the old traditions alive! Gong xi fa cai!