Chinese Lion Dance

Chinese Lion Dance opens the TMY Festival, 1993 (credit: Arline Levenson)
Chinese Lion Dance opens the TMY Festival, 1993
(credit: Arline Levenson)

"The Chinese Lion Dance"
Contributed by Zachary Roth Istrin and Kenny Parmelee
MUS 334 Professor Sturman
September 30, 2002

There is no single "Lion Dance." Depending on where the viewer or practitioner is, the lion dance may be executed differently and the dance's history may even be different. There are many shared aspects of the many different lion dances and one thing is certain: the Lion Dance originated in China. Within China there are two major styles of the Lion Dance, the Southern style and the Northern style.

The earliest documentation of the Lion Dance dates back to the third century B.C.E. during the Han dynasty. The uses for the Lion Dance range from religious ceremonies, rites of passage and agrarian reasons, to the opening of a new business. The Dance's most well known use is for the Chinese New Year. Interestingly enough, lions are not indigenous to China. Traders from the West often gave lions as gifts to Chinese emperors in return for using the Silk Road.

One of the earliest stories about the origin of the Lion Dance takes place in a small Chinese village. There was a wild and terrifying beast named nien (nien is very similar to the Chinese word nian, which means year). Every year nien would come along and destroy Chinese harvests and eat villagers. The villagers tried using many different animals to ward off the beast, but none worked. Finally arrived a lion. The lion scared away the magnificent beast. The next year the lion could not return because it was guarding the emperor's palace. Two villagers decided to dress as a lion and try to trick the beast into fleeing again. Thus, the lion dance is performed every year to ward off evil and to bring good fortune in the coming year.

In the Northern lion dance there is a replica of a lion on two dancers. All of the body is covered with hair except for the face of the lion. The Southern Lion resembles a dragon. The costume consists of an extremely fanciful face of a lion and ribbons of cloth instead of a body. Contrary to the differences in their dress, both the northern and southern traditions use the same dance principles. The lion performers match the movements of their body to the sounds created by the drum, symbol and gong. Each sound will be match with a different part of the body making it so the music and the dance are completely synchronized.

This lion dance has kept its same fundamental principles, which existed in both the north and the south of china, but has now stretch all over the world. There are now annual lion dance competitions held ever year where teams from the all over the globe compete in performance. In America, big cities such as San Francisco or New York host huge lion dance parades in celebration of the Chinese New Year. Even in the Southwest, a place far different from china, the lion dance has been performed to provide good luck to our communities; let's hope its legacy lives on in the future.


Chang, Hou-tien; The Chinese New Year. Holt, Reinhart and Winston; New York, New York, 1976.

Chinatown Online - Chinese New Year: Traditions- The Lion Dance. 25 Sept. 2003.

Chinese Lion. 25 Sept. 2003.

Kingdom of Lions: The Chinese Lion Dance. 25 Sept. 2003.

The Lion Dance. 25 Sept. 2003.


Instrumental by Mr. Wu
Explanation of the Lion Dance
Music accompanying the Lion Dance
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