Lunar New Year: Lions aren’t native to China, so where did the traditional lion dance come from?
It’s Lunar New Year, and the clanging of cymbals and the persistent beat of drums are aural cues to the lion dance. Colourful and loud, the lions are an ancient Chinese ritual to scare away evil spirits, and bless a business or home. The Chinese lion does not look much like a lion, though, and if these predators aren’t native to China, where does the dance come from?
Humans have long dressed up like animals to dance, a practice that dates back to the Qin dynasty, around 220BC, when there were texts describing exorcisms with dancers wearing bear skin masks. So what made the lion so special and how has it stood the test of time?
The earliest use of the word “lion” was in Han dynasty texts presented to court by emissaries from Central Asia. It wasn’t described as a dance until much later during the Tang dynasty. The dance was a lavish affair, and involved five different coloured lions, 12 “lion lads” or dancers in charge of teasing the beasts, accompanied by 140 singers.