Introduction to Lion Dance

Wushu is not limited to traditional or modern, nor to Taolu and Sanda. It is a whole culture, a way of life, strongly linked to its roots and cultural heritage. Traditional Chinese medicine, bow techniques, horse riding, and many more, are all part of Wushu. Lion Dance is too. A great example is Grandmaster Huang Feihong who was skilled in Wushu, but also a famous traditional doctor, and called the “Lion King” for his skills in Lion Dance.

Wushu is an inherent part of Chinese culture, and we know it can sometimes be … confusing. Wukong aims to develop a proper understanding of each side of Wushu to help avoiding such confusions.

Lions (especially Southern ones) can easily be spotted during Chinese New Year celebrations. In Chinese culture, the Lion is regarded as a sacred spirit capable of exorcising evil. Lion Dance is therefore very important during the Chinese New Year as it helps protecting the population from disasters and evil spirits. But Lion Dance is also used for other events like stores openings and random demonstrations during exhibitions and others.

In this case, the Lion Dance is mainly used to bring good fortune and wish success in business. During such demonstrations, one of the main events happening is  “Picking the Green” which generally consists on hanging a lettuce (In Chinese, the word “lettuce”  – Sheng Cai in Mandarin – sounds like another word meaning “making / creating money”), as high as possible in front of the store, with a red envelope “Hongbao” (containing money). The Lion will then jump, grab and eat the lettuce, take the “Hongbao” and spit the lettuce leaves out all over the front of the store, meaning “spreading gold everywhere”

Before using a Lion for the first time, Lion Dance schools will perform the Lion awakening ceremony with its “climax” being the eye-dotting ceremony. It consists in coloring in red with a brush the left then right eye, the tongue, the forehead, the horn and the tail. Traditionally, people were using red cinnabar for the ceremony and it has since been replaced by red pigment.

When they think Lion Dance, most people think of the Foshan / Heshan lions as most of the first Chinese diasporas going to western countries were from southern China. And generally traditions are more preserved in the south. However, like Wushu, Lion Dance has both North and South styles, with many variations depending on the region and the master. Below is an introduction of the main styles :

Northern Lions :

The Northern Lions are pretty “simple” to understand and all look very similar except that they are differentiated by gender (the male wears a red ribbon on the forehead, while the female wears a green ribbon), and age (small Lions = children). The Northern Lions usually perform as a couple, sometimes along with 2 smaller Lions representing their children.

These Lions’ heads are made of golden wood with red (head / ears) and yellow (body) fur.

The Northern Lion Dance is very acrobatic with performances such as balancing on a big ball, climbing a multiple level platform or tower.


Southern Lions :

Southern Lions, also nicknamed awaken lions “Xing shi” 醒獅, looks are based on more traditional roots. Depending on the region, the acrobatics are a more or less important part of the dancing. However, Southern Lions, especially the Foshan ones, also use extra elements for their dance : High Poles for modern competitions and demonstrations, or more traditional wooden tables, chairs, or benches.

Though nowadays there are many different Lions, in Southern Dance, there were traditionally 3 basic colours : Yellow / Gold (imperial colour), Red (courage), and Green (friendship). Southern Lions are based on historical figures from Chinese History and especially the Three Kingdoms period and novels.

Only 5 to 6  Lions are traditionally used :

The three “brothers” :

  • Liu Bei
  • Guan Gong (or Guan Yu)
  • Zhang Fei

Each character bearing specific colours. Generally speaking, yellow Liu Bei is yellow , Guang Gong red and black, and Zhang Fei is black and white (in some schools, it is also black and green). 

The additional three Lions :

Later were added 3 Lions to the family :

  • Zhaoyun (usually green and white)
  • Huang Zhong (Orange or Yellow with white beard)
  • Ma Chao (White)

Ma Chao is often not mentioned as it is only used for funerals and therefore believed to bring bad luck. In Chinese traditions, white colour is a symbol of death, therefore it is only used on this sad occasion and rarely showed, or even kept, but usually burnt after being used – together with the dancers’ clothes. The dance of this funeral Lion is generally performed by elder highly skilled dancers and show different moves than classic Lions, and also performs different prayers to the person that passed away.

Main Southern Lion Styles :

Foshan / Futsan Lions Main Characteristics :

The Foshan Lion Dance is the most popular one around the world. The Foshan style has its own music rhythm, dance moves and codes, and different style of lion heads.

One specificity all Foshan Lion heads share is the curved upper lip, compared to the Heshan Lion heads. Depending on which Foshan style, the lip will be more or less curved. This make them easy to spot.

Traditional Foshan Lions include different styles such as Bai Yun or Luo An styles, with slight variations. The Foshan Lions usually have fins and gills of different shapes and numbers. Below are a few characteristics of traditional Foshan style Lions :

foshan lions


Heshan / Hoksan Lions Main Characteristics :

For neophytes, the Heshan lions are quite similar to the Foshan ones. We give you one tip to spot them easily : The mouth. Also called “duck bill”, it is flat and can be very prominent (traditional Heshan style) or shorter (modern Heshan style).

Their eyes are generally drawn back, and these Lions have rounded backs and rounded horn tips. Below is an example of Heshan Lion (smaller mouth), which is the most often used model nowadays.

heshan lions

The Heshan Lion Dance music rhythm are more “playful” compared to the Foshan style rhythm.

Fo-He / Fut-Hok Lions Main Characteristics :

The Fo-He (Foshan – Heshan) lions are very trendy among modern Lion Dance Schools. As you may have guessed, it is a mix of both modern Foshan and modern Heshan Lions characteristics.

The Fo-He Lions got the eyes and fist horn of from the Heshan style, combined with the curved lip of the Foshan Lions. A lot of Malaysian Lions are Fo-He style Lions, if not modern Foshan.

fohe lions

Malaysians Lions Main Characteristics :

Chinese descendants are a huge community in Malaysia, and are very respectful and involved into their cultural traditions, including Lion Dance. “Malaysian Lions” have two meanings :

  • The Malaysian Lion Head style in terms of shape and look
  • The Malaysian Lion handcraft method.

Malaysians Lions makers have revolutionized the crafting methods. They figured the traditional lions, made of bamboo and sometimes with extra iron wire add ons to modify the shape and look of a Lion were super heavy and the dancers were tired very quickly. Not only they were too heavy, but also more fragile. To improve that, they got rid of the extra weight AND switched to rattan instead of bamboo. Not only rattan is more flexible and therefore more resistant, it is also much lighter and easier to use for the making of the heads.
Most schools now order Malaysian made Lions for these reasons.

Malaysians not only revolutionized the crafting methods, but they also are the ones who created the famous Lion Dance competitions on high poles called “Mei HuaZhuang”. They also standardized all dances and music, with the aim of spreading the Lion Dance culture through competition, like modern and traditional Wushu.

In terms of look, most of these Lions are often a variation of the modern Foshan Lions.  Compared to a Foshan Lion, and in order to get a head as light as possible, they don’t have fins or wire add-ons, and they keep the number of silk balls to its minimum (around 2 to 4 balls maximum usually). The forehead is smaller Malaysian makers also love to use very various colours and designs, as well as metallic paper that make their Lions look quite spectacular. Now even Hong Kong or Chinese masters got inspired by Malaysian Lions and their colorful styles. Below is an example of Malaysian style Lion :

Malaysian lions

Hong-Kong Lions Main Characteristics :

The Hong-Kong Lions are basically the twin brothers of the traditional Foshan Lions. They sometimes have the same eyes as the Heshan Lions, and the upper part of the eye sockets are flaring-up. And the music rhythm is a Foshan music on stamina. All in all, their design is mostly just a “smoother”, “simplified” version of the Foshan ones. See below :

hk lions

Taiwan Lions :

There are 2 types of Lions in Taiwan : The “classics” Foshan and Heshan ones, and the traditional Taiwan Lions that are VERY different from the China ones. Usually different Lion Dance Teams perform different style of Taiwan Lion Dance.

The head first : The head is usually larger but flatter, and can’t be fully whore by the dancers. It looks a lot more like a shield or a mask with usually two straight handles at the back.
The design and decorations are very simple compared to the fancy China Lions. The head colours also abide by the same traditional references : Gold / Yellow for Liu Bei, Red for Guan Gong, and Green for Zhan Fei. Though some variations exist depending on the craft masters, this is basically it. Another way to tell which Lion represents which hero, is the hairs or beard, and the symbols around / inside the Taoist symbols, on the forehead. Besides the beard and the hairs, sometimes the eyebrows are also made of hairs / fur. Below is our Key Consultant Grandmaster Lu Wenrui holding a Guan Gong Lion Head.

The body is also super simple. No glitters, no sequins, no fur. Only fabric (usually 1 to 3 different colors). No tail either. you may find some hairs on the edges of the fabric on some models.

The dance is also totally different from the ones you are used to see. the moves are very simple and there are no acrobatics, sometimes you can spot very simple side jumps. But the moves are very “round”, circular, and powerful. Taiwanese Lions usually shake and turn their head and body to extreme rotation degrees, super quickly.
The music is also different but quite similar to the Heshan style. Indeed, a lot of Chinese people immigrating to Taiwan were from the Fujian region, where Heshan city is located.