It was probably about 1971, and I was sitting in the front room of a Chinese Kenpo school in Milwaukee. There were always martial arts magazines for everyone to read, but unfortunately, articles on traditional Chinese martial arts were few and far between. On this particular occasion, however, there just happened to be a magazine from China that found its way to the school from the small Chinatown in Chicago. At that time Chicago was the closest city, albeit one state away, where any Chinese martial arts could be found at all. Members of our school would travel to Illinois to study with Master Wayson Liao, a Tai Chi instructor who taught the Master Chan Man Ching style Short Form from the Yang family system. This magazine made one of the return trips back with us, and included an article and a picture of a Chinese Lion. The headline itself was in English and Chinese, but I still had no idea what I was seeing. It looked fascinating. I asked one of the instructors if he had any idea what this was all about; he did not. Naturally, I figured it had to do something with the Chinese martial arts… after all, it was a martial arts magazine. No one had a clue and the moment, as well as the curiosity, passed.
There was no internet in those days. There were no computers. In fact, there were only a few calculators that had reached the market from Japan, but they were quite rudimentary and very expensive. (I was still using a slide rule in my physics class at the University of Wisconsin.) China was a nation closed to the West, and aside from Japanese or Korean influences, very little Asian culture reached us here in the USA heartland. It wasn’t until several years later that I finally understood the very traditional part of Chinese culture I had witnessed in that magazine, and the role that martial arts schools played in it. My teacher, Master Kwong Wing Lam, is a traditional martial arts SiFu with experience in Southern Canton and Ha Say Fu Hung Gar. Part of his knowledge includes the Hung Gar lion dancing of the famous Wong Fei Hung lineage, and I have been fortunate to study this very social, political and military tradition with him.
To this day, I am fascinated by the historical role of Chinese lion dancing. I am proud to say that we have a sizable, professional dance team in our school that has been performing throughout Wisconsin for over 20 years. We have been honored to represent the Chinese community on numerous occasions: Opening the Wisconsin State Fair at the Oriental Pavilion and the Asian Moon Festival at the Milwaukee Summerfest grounds, performing annually at the Chinese New Year banquet hosted by the OCA Wisconsin Chapter at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and dancing for the Americans With Chinese Children’s new year’s celebration. I literally cannot count the number of dances we have performed for government officials, business grand openings, Chinese restaurants, dragon boat festivals, public and private schools, weddings, private parties, county fairs, international political and business conferences, art and film festivals, theaters, martial arts tournaments, … and the list goes on.
For the first 15 years or so, I taught most of the lion dancing myself. Now, however, our Yee SiHing, Peter Clark, is the official lion dance instructor. He does an excellent job; I consider our team on par with many of the best internationally. It is always amazing to see our lions, usually two to five performing at one time, demonstrate proficiency and creativity with classic “tricks” such as eating the snake, drinking from the bridge, eating the greens, climbing and traversing the benches, climbing a 25-foot pole almost three stories high, playing with children, engaging the crowd, and presenting gifts to the bride. My heart swells to see how much we’ve grown.
So, what is lion dancing? Many stories trace its origins back through history, but like so many Chinese martial arts systems, it is so often difficult to separate history from myth and folktale. Who knows wherein lays the truth? That said, I believe it is relatively safe to assume that somewhere, long ago in ancient rural China, the villagers were ready to say goodbye to the tired and weary “old year” and anxious to welcome in the new, healthy and energetic “new year.” Dependent as they were upon the weather for their crops and ultimately their survival, they created celebrations which would serve to chase off whatever bad luck, evil, or negative karma may still be hanging around as the old year leaves, and invite only positive and healthy energy to accompany the new year’s arrival, thus protecting the village for the months to come.
The ceremony, facilitated by the village elders, would oftentimes include participation by the entire community. Loud music and costumes were special to the occasion. Over time the “Lion,” perceived as a strong and righteous creature, became a leading figure in the celebration. Awakened by the cacophonous sound of the large drums, gongs, cymbals and fireworks, the lion would then dance throughout the entire village, often from one building or home to the next. Each home would welcome the Lion with greens – food – to eat and maybe water to drink; over time, the presentation of the offerings would become more and more difficult for the Lion to acquire, testing the strength, stamina and the ingenuity of the Lion. A good protector had to be all of the aforementioned. One or more elders would lead the Lion throughout the village, and in time, would wear the costume of a male and/or female monk. Additionally, villagers carrying farm implements and/or weapons would follow the Lion to assist with battles against evils.
Time and tradition would dictate that the more auspicious the celebration, the more likely a wonderful year would follow. Consequently, lion dancing became an integral part of almost all celebrations and gatherings surrounding new homes, new business ventures, birthdays, weddings, visiting dignitaries, and martial arts demonstrations.
A few centuries back, the responsibility for lion dancing fell upon the local martial arts schools. The dancing was very physically demanding, so it only made sense that the group of villagers trained to protect the village from bandits and evil wrongdoers be the ones to assist the Lion in such an ambitious endeavor. The SiFu (Cantonese), or ShiFu (Mandarin), as the father of the school, was responsible for training the villagers to be of strong mind and body. He, or she, would often be the healer, philosopher and mediator, resolving all forms of conflict while maintaining peace and security for everyone. Therefore, it was natural that SiFu would also train the Lions.
Before a “new” Lion could be taught to represent the SiFu, the school, and the entire village, it needed to be domesticated. A ceremony was performed to “dot the eyes” of the Lion. Usually the highest regarded member of the village, assisted by the SiFu, would use a red paint-like concoction, primarily a red cinnabar extract, to “dot” the eyes, the mirror on the forehead (to reflect evil back upon itself), the mouth, sometimes even the ears, and then the full length of its body or its tail, while auspicious words were used to awaken and welcome the Lion to the fold. A red ribbon was tied around the Lion’s horn to bring further luck and to signify its status. In fact, this practice remains today within traditional Chinese martial arts schools, including ShaoLin Center.
While maintaining the significant attributes of original Chinese lions, the ones today are comprised of three major parts. First and foremost there is the head – a large, somewhat round, hollowed out papier-mâché mask formed over a very strong rattan and bamboo frame. One member of the “team” will be inside of the head; the second member of the “team” is bent over under the tail. The tail is usually a rather colorful and complementary piece of cloth tied to the head that extends out behind the Lion to represent its body. The final element of the Lion is called a skirt, which is a piece of fabric tied to the head that fits over the spot where the head and tail connect. This unites the two pieces as one entity – the Lion.
Today there are many very colorful and uniquely painted Lions. They are very beautiful. Traditionally however, there were three different Lions that represented the three brothers in the peach orchard: Lui Bei, Kwan Gung, and Zheng Fei. Each is represented with a different color. The historic Chinese tale of the three men, sworn into brotherhood, signifies commitment, dedication, integrity, righteousness, and filial piety. These three Lions played a significant role in the violent revolution of the Mings (the Chinese people of the Ming Dynasty circa 1350 to 1650) over the Chings (the invading Manchu from the north who ultimately established the Ching Dynasty circa 1650 to 1912), but this is a separate story in and of itself.
The actual dance is a relatively choreographed combination of different movements and techniques. The Lion performs these movements following the lead of the drum. Different beats and patterns “tell” the Lion what to do next – low dance, high dance, eat the snake, approach the bridge cautiously, back up, drink, climb, bow to the guests, and so on. It can be very difficult to see while under the Lion, so the SiFu/drummer becomes the eyes and leads the Lion through the performance. The accompanying beat of gongs and cymbals also help guide the Lion from one place to another… from one trick to the next.
As time has changed details of the lion dance, so, too, has ShaoLin Center evolved its team. Indeed, some fine dancers have come and gone through the years… stories are still shared about the storytelling abilities of this member, or the athletic endeavors of that member. Collectively, many remember spending hours with children so they could play the instruments or gather under the lions, surviving extreme cold and winter conditions, and performing for impressive numbers of onlookers. All are recalled with happiness, and pride. Of course, this makes me happy, and proud, as well.
Seeing members of our Young Scholar Warriors class (ages 9+) not only learn, but become excited about the prospect of learning the intricacies of lion dancing, takes that happiness and pride to another level. This is when I realize what it meant for the Masters of long ago to pass on their traditions, their culture, their passion. I had no concept of how those intriguing pages in a magazine would impact my life. I am only now beginning to see how they continue to impact the lives of so many as we obey the drum beats and dance on.