Each winter at the turn of the lunar calendar, the lion dancers put on a lively performance, gamboling about to the beat of pounding drums and crashing cymbals. It’s a dazzling spectacle meant to draw in luck and prosperity, and as such, graces celebrations like the Lunar New Year, birthdays, or weddings where Chinese diasporas have landed around the world. Here are nine things you might not know about the ancient tradition.
1. The prevalence of lions in Chinese culture stems from Central Asia and Persia.
Lions never historically inhabited China, so how did the felines come to be such a common cultural fixture? Their origin in Chinese culture begins in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), when the Silk Road was established to connect China with Europe. Along the way, emissaries from Persian and Central Asian states would gift lions to the Chinese emperor. The popularity of this imperial beast then percolated from the high courts onto the masses. Lions also play an important role in Buddhist mythology, which began spreading throughout China in the late Han Dynasty.
2. The lion dance is over 1000 years old.
After lions were introduced to the popular imagination, the animal may have been incorporated into the existing traditions of animal pantomimes. Historical records from the Three Kingdoms period (220–289 CE) describe people dressing in lion costumes for Buddhist festivities, and later in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the lion dance became a well-documented court festivity.
3. There are different styles of lion dance that vary regionally.
Although rooted in China, the lion dance has spread across East Asia, with each region adding its own local variations. An array of styles abounds in Japan and Korea. In Indonesia, the lion dancers wear huge fur coats with hefty heads. The white and green snow lion is emblematic of Tibet, while the Fujian province created a demonic green lion to represent the invading Manchurians during the 17th century.
Within China, the lion dance can be broadly divided into Northern and Southern styles. The Northern lion is red and yellow with a shaggy fringe, and is usually performed with a male and female and sometimes little cubs. The Southern lion, originating from the Guangdong province, is the most common type seen on the international stage. They usually come with a fur trim and an array of flamboyant colors, and are further subdivided into the futsan and hoksan styles. The former is meant to look more aggressive and the latter more cat-like and playful.
4. The lion dance was briefly banned in Hong Kong because rival gangs would conceal weapons in their costumes.
During the Cultural Revolution, the lion dance was seen as primitive, so the tradition was purged from much of mainland China. The custom, however, thrived in Hong Kong, where students practiced it in martial arts schools. Because the lion dance takes many of its basic stances and movements from kung fu, schools would use it to show off their prowess to rival martial art academies.
Things took a violent turn, however, when martial arts schools began associating with Hong Kong’s triads, a local organized crime syndicate. Rival gangs would conceal knives within their costumes to slash at the competition, and performing a lion dance became an excuse to duke out territory disputes. This led to a temporary ban in Hong Kong during the 1970s and ‘80s. Now, after some reputation management, the lion dance is once again a celebrated custom—assuming you have a permit.
5. The lion dance features prominently in several Jet Li films.
If you want to see the lion dance and martial arts in action, check out Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China III (1992) and Once Upon a Time in China IV (1993), where the Southern Chinese style of lion dance is central to the plot. To check out the Northern style, watch Shaolin Temple II (1984) and Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986). If you’re more of a Jackie Chan fan, his early film The Young Master (1980) opens with an iconic lion dance battle.
6. Women were barred from doing the lion dance.
Martial arts academies were historically fraternities, so women were generally excluded from practicing the lion dance. Since the martial art fraternity paradigm has largely dissolved, dance troupes have gradually warmed to women joining their ranks. Now, there are several women-led lion dance troupes around the world.
7. The lion dance makes appearances in the Guinness World Records.
In January 2011, the Hong Kong Dragon and Lion Festival Preparatory Committee organized a bonanza with 1111 lions—a total of 2222 performers—dancing in the streets of Hong Kong for the Lunar New Year. It became the largest paired lion dance in history.
Later that year, another record was set when 3971 schoolchildren in Taiwan each donned a lion costume and performed the world's largest singly operated lion dance show.
8. Chinese Malaysians invented the extreme sport of high pole lion dancing.
The lion dance has historically been performed on the ground or in small obstacle courses, with lions leaping up onto chairs, balance beams, or upturned vases in a spectacle of balance and athleticism. This show of acrobatics was turned up a notch when Chinese Malaysians began performing routines on high wooden stilts. In the early ‘90s, this became a standardized arena of metal poles ranging from 4 to 8 feet in height, and the high pole lion dance as a competitive sport was born.
Performances are scored out of 10. To impress the judges, teams must choreograph a seven-to-10-minute-long routine where they leap between poles while performing acrobatic stunts. The most prestigious international competition has been held every other year in Malaysia's Resorts World Genting since 1994. During the 2018 games, 36 different teams competed from 16 countries.
9. The lion dance is getting a modern makeover.
Chinese Malaysians aren’t the only performers revamping an ancient tradition. Teams in Singapore and Hong Kong have incorporated LED lights, EDM, and hip hop into their routines. Kwok’s Kung Fu and Dragon Lion Dance Team in Hong Kong puts on a show with hip hop dancers clad in Tron-like suits bopping alongside flashy Chinese lions synchronized to EDM.
This story originally ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.