By Paul Kay
From the early days of Imperial China to the ArtisTree stage, ContempoLion is a production almost two millennia in the making. Follow our timeline to trace the evolution of lion dancing from ancient times to the modern day.
Although its specific origins have been lost in the mists of time, most historians believe lion dancing began in the late Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when lions were brought to Northern China from Central Asia as gifts for the emperor and representations of the beast began to be incorporated into existing traditional dances.
By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), lion dancing had become a distinctive form of cultural entertainment and was regularly performed at the imperial court. Historical accounts describe the “Lion Dance of the Five Directions”, which featured a quintet of large and colourful lion effigies controlled by ropes.
Pride of the North
Lion dancing continued to spread across Northern China and develop the characteristics that are still associated with the Northern style of the dance today. Unlike the better-known Southern version, the Northern dance features semi-realistic, shaggy-haired lion costumes, and often involves a pair of “lions” (one male, one female).
The later Southern form first originated in Guangdong. As well as incorporating martial arts elements into the routines, the Southern lion dance features oversized costumes and bright, bold colours. The Southern version has a number of key details: the mirror between the lion’s eyes is meant to scare away evil spirits and the horn in the forehead is for fighting evil; the accompanying red ribbon shows it’s been blessed and awakened to pay respect to the gods.
The Lion Roams
Beginning in Japan as early as the 8th-century, lion dancing spread throughout Asia, to Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Tibet and beyond. Today, there are many regional variations in China.
The Southern version divided further into the Fut San (or Fo Shan) and Hok San (or He Shan) disciplines, with the latter being developed by “Canton Lion King” Feng Geng Zhang in the early 20th-century. Fut San is based mainly on kung fu moves, while Hok San is more playful and expressive.
Lion dances acquired a somewhat unsavoury reputation in Hong Kong in the 1950s and ‘60s, when rival troupes associated with martial arts groups and triads would battle each other to prove their supremacy. Some participants even concealed daggers amid their costumes and lion dancing was banned for a time by the government. Although the ban was lifted, it remains illegal to perform a lion dance in the city without a police permit.
The first World Lion Dance Championship was held in Malaysia in 1994 and today is the premier competition for troupes looking to test their mettle against the best in the world. The 2016 edition attracted 39 teams from 15 countries, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, the US, France, Australia and Chile. The International Dragon and Lion Dance Association hopes that one day lion dancing will be recognised as an official Olympic sport.
The Guinness World Record for simultaneous two-person lion dances was set at the annual Hong Kong Dragon and Lion Dance Festival on 1 January 2011, when a total of 1,111 pairs strutted their stuff in the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. The record for the largest single-dancer display was set in September of the same year, when 3,971 children performed in Changhua, Taiwan.
A Tradition Reborn
ContempoLion debuts at ArtisTree, bringing together the worlds of lion dancing and contemporary dance.
Photo: Mike Pickles