The Lion Dance

The Lion Dance


Our junior reporters in a group picture with lion dance students and master Lee Yun-fook.
Our junior reporters in a group picture with lion dance students and master Lee Yun-fook.
Photos: Chris Lau/SCMP
Every Lunar New Year, lion dancers take their flamboyant costumes onto the street and dance along to thundering drum beats. Most of us see it as a spectacular dance of celebration. Very few people know how it started or even that, at one stage, it was at the heart of a revolution. Our junior reporters met up with lion dance master Ellis Lee Yun-fook in his studio in Tai Wai to find out more ...

In the past, the lion dance was a form of martial art. To inflict maximum pain on the enemy, the lion head was hard and heavy. But the nature of the dance changed over the years to become a celebratory performance and, consequently, the materials used to make the lion head are much lighter.

The head is now made using thin bamboo sticks, covered with three layers of paper and fabric. The fabric is embroidered and painted to create unique features for each lion. Still, each head should be symmetrical with a lively expression.

During the performance, one of the two dancers inside the lion takes charge of the head. His job involves making the lion blink and open its mouth as if roaring by pulling different levers under the head. Another person takes charge of the two back legs and the tail. Both people must be co-ordinated so that they carefully display the lion's emotions.

Someone with strong arms is needed to operate the back legs. The person in front who operates the lightweight head often has to perform difficult leaps and jumps, such as leaping onto tables or steps. The person at the back, therefore, must often support the other dancer's weight.

Janet Tam

Ellis Lee Yun-fook is the founder, president and head coach of the Yun Fook Tong Chinese Martial Art, Dragon and Lion Dance Association. His vision is to keep the dance relevant and in the public eye, and make sure it survives from generation to generation.

Lee wants to make sure young people don't miss out on this slice of cultural heritage, and is currently coaching in primary and secondary schools, as well as community centres.

Lee himself picked up the sport when he was 15 and has turned it into a career - he was even the lion dance director in Jackie Chan's film The Young Master.

He has competed in lion dance contests all over the world and coached some outstanding teams, which have won several awards. Indeed, Lee's affection for the lion dance has helped spread its popularity around the world.

Jocelyn Chan

The lion dance is exciting and full of meaningful history.

Originally, the lions were only available in three colours: black, white and golden yellow, representing three famous military generals back at the turn of the second century - the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. Black was for Zhang Fie, red for Guan Yu, and yellow for Liu Bee.

The lion dance usually finishes with a sequence known as Cai Qing, in which lions compete against one another to secure a ball of lettuce in their mouth. Today, this custom symbolises good luck and fortune. But it originated as a way of passing secret messages.

Back in the Qing dynasty, activists and dissidents managed to spread word of their revolutionary plans and dates for surprise mass protests by stuffing notes inside the lettuces. The lion dancers representing different dissidents' groups would take turns to acquire it. Once they peeled open the lettuce, they would find the details of the demonstrations and could play their part in the revolution.

One more interesting fact: Cai Qing in Putonghua, which refers to picking greens, also refers to overthrowing the Qing leadership.

Samantha Lau



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