Raising the Curtain on… Lion Dance

To mark the end of the Chinese New Year festivities for the year, we take a look at one of the traditional performing arts form seen every year during the Lunar New Year celebrations.


A Chinese drum clacks. Once. Twice. Thrice.

Cymbals clash in with the drumroll, a regulated cacophony building up, then receding, in sound and speed, like the cycle of waves.

The music halts. Rolls. Halts. Rolls.

The lion pauses, twisting its torso. Its head is cocked, its eyes blinking to the beat. It sways, gearing up for something, a sudden stop in motion almost like a hesitation –

It leaps. Rearing up, soaring through the air, over uneven poles. Then it lands, each foot secure on a suspended circular plate. The crowd cheers.


The lion dance is a part of Chinese culture, and in Malaysia is often performed from the first to the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year. During this period, the dance is a staple performance at shopping malls, hotel lobbies, public streets, and state-level open houses. The lion itself has also come to be a mascot, a symbol of a new beginning that brings good luck and prosperity. As such, lion dance troupes are sometimes also requested to perform at opening ceremonies outside the New Year period, for example, to launch a new business or to welcome VIPs.

The most common origin story for this dance is one which is related to the celebration of the Chinese New Year itself. The legend goes, a long time ago in China, a mythological beast called Nian would terrorise a village and devour people each new year’s eve. To scare it away, the villagers created their own lion costume (the only animal that had wounded the beast), made a loud racket (to intimidate), and wore red (said to be the beast’s weakness), managing to scare Nian away forever. Thus the lion dance, its accompanying music, firecrackers, and the colour red became a Chinese tradition.

The beast Nian (image source)


Less exciting explanations of its origins usually include Chinese emperors. In one version, Persian merchants presented lions as gifts to an emperor, and performed lion dances. Because the emperor liked it so much, the people came up with their own lion dance, and it gradually spread to the local communities. In another, an emperor dreamt of this auspicious animal, and gave orders to recreate and display the image of the animal at festivals.;l

The lion dance is sometimes mistakenly referred to as dragon dance. However, the former usually consists of only two dancers, for the front and back half, whereas the dragon requires a team of people who holds the poles to manipulate its movements. The lion dance in Malaysia is predominantly that of the Southern Lion form – distinct from the Northern Lion, which is frequently performed in pairs or a family of ‘lions’, resembling Pekingese dogs or Imperial guardian lions.

The Northern Lion Dance. (image source)


Its spread in Southeast Asia is due to the fact that the Chinese diaspora here are often of Southern Chinese heritage, but the Southern Lion costume also meant that it is more viable for practical reasons. As opposed to the Norther lion’s full-bodied costume, which is perhaps less suitable for Malaysia’s hot humid climate, the Southern Lion’s body is a long cloth cape, layered and trimmed with fur, draped over the dancers who wear matching pants. This is connected to a head that is typically constructed of papier-mâché and a bamboo frame, complete with a single horn to denote power. The Southern Lion is further separated into two styles: the Fo Shan (characterised by its use of kung fu stances) and the He Shan (which mimics the habits and actions of cats).

The expressive footwork and acrobatic stunts of the dance means that the dancers often have to be trained in kung fu as well, resulting in a process that requires five years on average to become a lion dancer. This physical strength and stamina is crucial for a performance which may take up to 30 minutes to an hour, balancing  and supporting and jumping around with a lion head weighing anywhere from 9kg to 15kg. The head dancer must also coordinate the blinking eyes and flapping mouth, whereas the back dancer has to remain bent in position for most of the time. Through this, the lion’s playfulness, fierceness, its waking up and playing and eating, are brought to life.

The instruments comprise a drum, a gong, and cymbals, with the drummer guiding the dancers’ moves, pace, and rhythm. As such, the head dancer typically has experience playing drums as well so they are familiar with the different beats, and the corresponding steps. The volume of these instruments further signal to the surrounding vicinity that a dance is going on, and is believed to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.


A Lion taking part in Cai Qing (image source)

In the traditional custom of Cai Qing (literal translation: plucking the greens), lettuce would be hung from a pole, with a red packet attached to it. The lion would ‘consume’ the lettuce before ‘spitting’ it out, keeping the red packet which is a compensation for the dance troupe. As with most symbols the Chinese traditions, the lettuce represent prosperity and fortune, due to their similar pronunciations in Mandarin, and is often thrown back to the audience for them to catch. Other props include Mandarin oranges, or characters such the laughing Buddha, who guides the lion through crowded places, or masked dancers who ‘provoke’ the lion.

The lion dance has also evolved into a form of sport, in which dancers compete in international championships, such as the Genting World Lion Dance Championship held every two years. These performances may be done on poles reaching up to 6m in height, and have resulted in the development of elaborate acrobatic stunts and creative choreography. The technical difficulty of the steps, liveliness of the lion, and the instrumental accompaniment are all evaluated for these competitions.

Its place in popular culture is further cemented in a scene from the Hong Kong action movie Dreadnaught (1981), as two schools compete against each other with gravity-defying jumps and kicks.


In multicultural Malaysia, it also carries cultural and political significance, a representation of traditional Chinese performing arts, and the Malaysian Chinese identity. With the first lion dance in Malaysia registered as being in 1903’s Penang, the lion dance gained wider attention and interest, culminating in requests for it to be recognised as part of the national culture in the 1970s.

Although the Home Affairs Minister then, Ghazali Shafie, suggested that the ‘foreign’ cultural elements should be changed – from lion to tiger, from Chinese percussion to Indian or Malay music – to increase its appeal, the ban on the lion dance outside the Chinese New Year period was eventually lifted in 1990, and it became a widely-accepted practice at official events. In recent times, it has even become a platform of opportunities for inter-cultural understanding, with individuals like Mariam Abdul Nazar and Siti Aishah Mohd Farulnizam receiving media attention for taking part in a lion dance troupe.

With its place in the national consciousness seemingly secured, Malaysians are likely to continue witnessing and appreciating the synchronised agility, the breath-catching leaps, the playful shakes of the head testing the music, that is the lion dance.


Header image source: colourfulthreads.co

By Yee Heng Yeh


Writer, feminist, theatre enthusiast, but most importantly a purveyor of the importance of performing arts, from dance to spoken word and all in between.

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