Celebrating with the Lion Dance
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 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.
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