I was fascinated by the lion dance performance at the recent martial arts festival I attended. It was colourful, clever and entertaining. I wanted to know more about its origins and history and was astounded by some of the things I found out. This rather innocent looking art has quite a chequered past.
The lion dance is over a thousand years old, originating in China during the Han Dynasty, it spread to other Far Eastern countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Indonesia. The Chinese have long admired the qualities and character of the lion, which is featured in Buddhist lore, despite it not being a native animal of China. In fact lions were introduced to China by Westerners who were trading with China via the Silk road from India. Knowing how much the Chinese loved lions they brought them as gifts - along with some lion tamers to look after them!
Initially the lion dance was used to entertain visiting dignitaries, at festivals, religious ceremonies and at other official functions. However, during the Ching Dynasty it was somewhat misused and became a bit of a military or political prop. It was used to smuggle agents in or out of palaces, exchange secret information, recruit fighters from the enemy camp - all sorts of espionage designed to topple governments. The 'lions' were used as a sort of mini Chinese Trojan horse!
Even in the 20th century the lion dance fell into disrepute. It has a long association with Kung Fu and is often performed by Kung Fu clubs. In earlier times these martial arts academies were rivals and attempted to control territories. The more 'territories' a martial arts academy controlled the more prestigious it was regarded. Particularly ambitious schools would invade others to take control of them. They would often do this under the guise of a lion dance competition which they would use as an excuse to have a fight.
By the 1950's the rivalry between martial arts groups (via their lion dance troupes) had turned into gang warfare. Groups of gangsters were controlling the troupes and people were pulling their kids out of lion dance troupes in droves because of the violence that was occurring whenever rival troupes met at festivals. All sorts of nasty tricks were used such as hiding daggers in the lion costume and using them to slash the opponents legs during a 'lion fight'. In the end the lion dance was banned in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia for social or political reasons. The ban lasted for decades and was only lifted in Indonesia in 1999. Even now, in Hong Kong lion dance troupes must obtain a permit from the government to perform a lion dance.
Whoa! And I thought the lion dance was something innocent and entertaining - silly me!
Still, all is not lost. In recent years the lion dance has regained it's honour and is again performed for entertainment purposes at festivals and at Chinese new year. It is now thought of as a recreational sport and competitions are held all over the far east - in a properly refereed and judged arena. In fact lion dance competitions are extremely skillful and acrobatic, often performed high up on stilts! It is generally only the most experienced martial artists from a club that are invited to join the troupe because those martial art skills are needed to perform the lion dance to a high standard.
Here's some video from YouTube of a lion dance competition, it's pretty spectacular:
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