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Lion Dance Mythology in China

The “Nian” tale: Every spring before the Spring Festival, the beast called “Nian” attacked the village and destroy crops. Tired of the destruction, the villagers banded together and came up with a solution. They built a fierce looking and brightly coloured costume with mask which looked like a lion. When the Nian returned to terrorize the villagers again, they donned the costume and waved the mask towards the Nian. The prancing about in costume along with the loud noise of beating pots and pans, were enough to frighten and drove the beast away and never to return again. Ever since, the event performance has been renacted annually, on Lunar New Year, that symbolizes happiness, success, good fortune. In some accounts of the story of the Nian, the beast was actually a lion which was eventually tamed by a Buddhist monk and it became the guardian to the villagers. Some lion dances would have the Big Headed Buddha (in Cantonese, it is called the Dai Tao Fut).

Good omen dream: A Tang dynasty legend has it that the Emperor dreamt of an odd looking creature, that he has never seen before, saved his life. Upon waking up, the emperor described to his advisors and asked them what was that creature he had in his dream. Since there were no lions in China, nobody had the answer except for one of his ministers. The minister told him that the creature was a lion. As the emperor felt his dream had messages of good omen, he ordered the construction of the model “lion”. Born again lion: The mythical lion who lived in heaven has a fondness for practical jokes. One day the lion’s behaviour angered the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor killed the lion and tossed out its detached head and body to rot. Feeling pity and merciful, Goddess Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, re-attached the lion’s head and body with a red sash and give the lion life again on condition that it will do acts of goodwill. Today, the red sash is seen on the lion head and it symbolizes positive life energy, Yang energy (Yin, which is negative energy, is the opposite of Yang). Goddess Kwan Yin also attached in the front of the lion’s forehead a unicorn horn and a reflective object i.e. mirror which are believed to bring good fortune and drive away evil spirits. (Unicorn is one of the celestial animals in Chinese folklore).