Wednesday, January 30, 2019

An Asian New Year Tradition: The Lion Dance


Setsubun (節分), Japan's old New Year celebration, is fast approaching. In the past, the Japanese celebrated the beginning of the lunar year, based on the Chinese lunar calendar, but they broke with tradition in 1873, when they officially adopted the Western calendar, and began to celebrate the new year on January first according to the Gregorian calendar thereafter. I wrote a blog post on Setsubun which you can access here.
After the Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar, this really messed with the way the Japanese observed older holidays. Shall the holidays be observed according to the new calendar, or the old calendar? Japanese across the country have never really agreed, and thus, the same holidays are often celebrated on three different days in the year.

For example, Obon, the Japanese festival to commemorate the dead (お盆), centers around "the fifteenth day of the seventh month." However since the older lunar calendar can lag behind the Gregorian calendar by about a month, some regions celebrate Obon on the fifteenth of July (七月盆, shichigatsu-bon), as July is the seventh month of the year. Others celebrate Obon on the fifteenth of August ( 八月盆, hachigatsu-bon) in order to bring the celebration closer to the lunar date. Still, others keep track of the older lunar calendar, and celebrate Obon accordingly (旧盆, kyu-bon, lit. "old bon"). So there are three possible dates for Obon, and the New Year is celebrated at three different times of the year. (You can read my post on Obon here.)

Offically, old New Year, or Setsubun, is celebrated on February 3rd. However, Chinese New Year is on February 5th this year. (It was on February 15th last year.) Traditions for Setsubun include chasing out demons with soybeans and eating special sushi rolls. One tradition that permeates most countries in the Sinosphere is that of the lion dance. At the beginning of the Lunar Calendar, one can witness different renditions of the lion dance across China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other countries.

The lion dance is performed to ward off evil spirits, welcome good luck to homes and businesses, and to pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health. In most traditions, the "lion", or "shishi", consists of a head, or "shishi-gashira" (獅子頭) as it is called in Japanese, and a body made up of a variety of materials and patterns. The performers try their best to mimic different behaviors of a lion, including playfulness, aggression, biting, sleeping, and cleaning itself.

Shishimai (獅子舞)
Japan imported different traditions from China, and the lion dance is no exception. Across the Sinosphere there is an infinite variety of lion dances. There is not a single, uniform "lion dance." There is extensive variety, even within Japan itself. Some lion dances are performed by a single person (pictured above), and still others are performed with two or more people.

The lion head usually consists of wooden, painted head adorned with "hair." It looks mean and fearsome, and often consists of two pieces that can be used to snap and make loud clacking noises, or "bite" people. It is not a uniform design, and different versions of the lion head can be observed across Japan. The body of the "lion" is often a green cloth with a white design called "karakusa." (唐草, lit. "Chinese grass.") The lion performs to the sounds of taiko drums, flutes and bells.

In Okinawa, the "lion" is modeled after an Okinawan guardian deity known as the "Shiisaa." (シーサー) The head of it tends to be bigger and the body is made of woolly material. Instead of drums and flutes, the Shiisaa dances to Okinawan-style music which includes drums and a three-stringed lute known as the "sanshin." (三線)


It is considered "lucky" to be approached by and be "bitten" by the lion.

Wǔshī (舞獅)
China is vast, so the there are a myriad of variations of the lion dance. The lion's appearance and dance style varies from region to region. The version of lion dance that foreigners are likely to be familiar with is the southern variety, since the Chinese diaspora in other parts of the world tend to be from the southern region of Canton. (廣東 - Guangdong)

Northern Lion

Southern Lion

The lion dance is often performed by experts in martial arts, especially if the "lion" is to perform special tricks, such as standing on its hind legs, jumping and walking on posts. The lion performs to a special musical ensemble of gongs and a large drum, which plays fast, lively music.

Chinese lion dance drum ensemble

Lion dances performed by Chinese diaspora can be seen all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Malaysia and Indonesia. International lion dance competitions are held in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Vietnamese Lion - múa lân
Vietnamese lions tend to mimic the Chinese southern lion almost exactly. There is a uniquely Vietnamese dance known as the "unicorn" dance, however, which is said to be modeled after a different mythical creature entirely, known as the "kỳ lân" (麒麟) or "Qilin" in Chinese. Unique to the Vietnamese unicorn dance is a character known as the Ông Địa,or the spirit of the earth, depicted as a large bellied, broadly grinning man holding a palm-leaf fan similar to the Chinese 'Big Head Buddha' (大頭佛). According to popular belief, this character has the power to summon the kỳ lân, so in the Vietnamese rendition, he takes the lead in clearing its path. The Ông Địa has a goofy, comical appearance and adds to the festive and merry-making nature of the dance.

Tibetan Snow Lion - Senggeh Garcham
In Tibet, there is a lion dance known as the "Snow Lion dance." The name "Senggeh Garcham" comes from the Sanskrit word siṅha, and cham which means "Buddhist ritual dance." The snow lion has white fur and sometimes green fringes. It is regarded as an emblem of Tibet, and its white fur represents the snowy mountain ranges and glaciers of Tibet. The dance can be performed as a secular dance by common people, or as a ritual dance by monks.

Sajanori or Sajachum (사자놀이 - 사자춤)
The Korean rendition of the lion dance exists as one of many masked dramas. (탈춤 Tal Chum) It is performed as an exorcism ritual meant to frighten away demons for the coming of the new year. Instead of a snapping head like that of Chinese and Japanese lions, the Korean lion's head consists of a large, fearsome-looking mask. As with China and Japan, Korean lions vary from region to region. Some masks have large bells hanging from them, meant to scare away evil spirits.

Indonesian Barong

There is a lion dance in Indonesia known as "Barong." It is not clear that the Indonesian Barong was ever influenced by the Chinese lion dance, but it bears a lot of resemblance to it. For example, the Barong dance is often performed by two people wearing the costume, and the head of the lion is made of two parts that "bite" and create a clacking sound. In Hindu Balinese culture, the Barong is the king of good spirits and the enemy of the demon queen Rangda. The Barong dances to the shimmering sounds of a gamelan ensemble.

Barong in Indonesia

Appearance in Megaman 7
If you've played through Megaman 7 on the Super Nintendo, you saw a rendition of the Japanese Shishi and perhaps didn't even know it. In Turbo Man's stage, for the Mid-stage boss, you fight a large truck with a strange face, launching miniature versions of itself at you. Upon closer inspection, you will notice that, actually, the truck was made to look like the Shishi in the Japanese lion dance, complete with green karakusa print.

That's it for this month's blog post! Happy Setsubun, and happy Chinese New Year!

Related Posts:
Setsubun: Japan's Old New Year

Summer: Obon Season in Japan