Celebrating with the Lion Dance

The Tribune, Sunday, October 6, 2002
B. N. Goswamy

Skilled dancers from Xiiang,

Persian masks and lion masks.

The heads are carved of wood,

The tails are woven with thread.

Pupils are flecked with gold

And teeth capped with silver.

They wave fur costumes

And flap their ears

As if from across the drifting sands

Ten thousand miles away…

THE words belong to the ninth century poet, Bo Juyi, from T’ang China, as he describes a dance group from the western frontier city of Liangzhou, but they might apply to the Chinese Lion Dance of today wherein bands of highly skilled men put on masks and hide their bodies under gaily painted paper/plastic cover of the lion/dragon form that snakes and leaps around. The Chinese New Year is ushered in with this: joy, invocation, foreboding, sorcery, all coming together in these fabulous dancing beast forms. The celebrations are not complete without them, and if the ritual of the Lion Dance, called the shizi, were to disappear from peoples’ lives, one can only imagine the void it would leave.

But, where does the Lion Dance in China come from? The lion itself has never been native to China or to any of the lands in the Far East or South-East Asia, regions where the animal form is such a central part of ceremony and celebration. One starts looking naturally, therefore, for outside sources.

The Chinese themselves believe, widely, that lion images and the lion dance reached China during the period of the Han Dynasty, somewhere in the first century AD, probably through the Buddhist missionaries who travelled along the celebrated Silk Road. Buddhist missionaries instantly remind of India, where Buddhism was born and the lion was a native—one even recalls the fact that the Buddha himself was called Shakyasimha, ‘the lion among the Shakyas”, the clan to which he belonged—but this is only one of the possibilities. For, before it reached China, Buddhism had established itself in many of the lands in Central Asia that lay on the route to China. And there lay, close by, lands like southern Afghanistan and Iran where not only did the lion roam once but a highly developed lion iconography, and symbolism, had become established, the lion standing for many things: majesty, power, domain, nobility, kingly virtue, even the sun, among them. With the missionaries then, and with the traders, the lion entered China, mostly in the form of images and motifs on art objects and textiles, but also, occasionally, as a living animal, brought in as a curiosity, an item of trade, even as part of a tribute. And this might well have happened before the first century AD. But, once it was there, it became very swiftly one of the most widely used symbol in Chinese art. The lion was everywhere: as a guardian of gateways, supporter of thrones, element in the dance that was so much a part of popular culture. By the time the Ming dynasty came to rule, enormous bronze lions were guarding the imperial palaces of Beijing.

The protective role of the lion, and the origin of the lion dance in China, come together in a charming story. A long time ago, it is said, a people-eating monster, the nien, attacked the villages of China. The people turned to the lion for help, and he immediately attacked the nien, driving him away. Unfortunately, the monster returned the following year, too, but this time the lion was too busy guarding the imperial palace to come and help. The villagers, therefore, constructed a fake lion of cloth and bamboo, and two of them hid inside, prancing and roaring like a lion, and successfully scared the nien away. Ever since then, it is said, the Lion Dance has been a feature of the New Year celebrations, chasing away evil, and bringing good fortune to all.

Whatever the origin of the lion dance, one thing is certain: the lion that the Chinese knew was not the African lion, but the Asiatic one. As it occurs in Chinese art and on the masks worn by the lion dancers, it shows all the characteristics of the Asiatic lion: a large tail tuft, a relatively small mane that leaves the ears clearly visible, growths of hair extending to the joints of the forelegs and along the belly, and a distinctive ventral skin fold. This is the lion that one sees on the Ashokan pillar at Sarnath, our national emblem now, and in sculptures of goddess Durga rides in in India.

Different routes

It is of interest that the mythologies centering round the lion from regions as distant and spread out as Greece, Anatolia, West Asia and India are, somehow, inter-related even as they take different forms in Judaic, Zoroastrian, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Greek and Buddhist arts. The words for ‘lion’ are again of interest. Leon (Greek) by way of the Latin leo gives us the European distribution; simha (Sanskrit) travels to South-East Asia to become singa (Indonesian) and thus the lion of Singapore; and sh’ir, the original Persian from which Hindi sher comes, becomes shizi in China, and shishi in Japan.

One thought on “Celebrating with the Lion Dance

  1. […] from which Hindi sher comes, becomes shizi in China, and shishi in Japan.” – “Celebrating with the Lion Dance” – B. N. […]

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