Myths: Origin History Tradition Symbolism

Myths: Origin

There are many myths about how lions and lion dance originated. One myth is also the origin of the Lunar New Year celebrations. The story is as follows: There was a monster named Nian (Chinese word for "year") that came once a year to a village to eat its harvest and people. The villagers always fled to the mountains to avoid being eaten by Nian. One year, a lion showed up and chased away the monster. However, in the following years the lion wasn't there. The villagers made a lion costume and had two people wear it to scare away Nian. In addition to the lion likeness, the villagers wore red, played loud drums, and set off firecrackers, since Nian didn't like any of these either. This is why Lunar New Year is celebrated with all of these aspects. This time the villagers did not have a lion to protect themselves. So, they solved the problem by creating a costume likeness of a lion and two villagers used it to scare “Nian” away. This is the reason the lion dance is performed every Chinese New Year.

A similar myth is that the lion itself was the Nian in the previous story. This time, a Buddhist monk came to the village and told the villagers to wear red and make loud noises to scare the lion away. The Buddha himself went after the lion into the mountains to tame it and teach it Buddhism. They returned, and the lion became the protector of the village. The monk himself became known as the Big-Headed Buddha. From this myth, lion dance serves to bring luck and prosperity.

This myth is more closely related to the history of lion dance than other myths. There was an Emperor who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.). The Emperor had a dream about a mysterious animal saving his life. When the Emperor woke up, he asked his ministers what the creature was. They told him it resembled the lion, which was a creature from the West. He then had his artists and masons create art and statues of the lion. Due to this, the lion became the symbol of prosperity, happiness and good luck.

The last myth explains the origin of the lion as a creature that lived in the heavens. The lion was very playful and mischevious, but the Jade Emperor decided it caused too much trouble. He ordered the lion's head be cut off as punishment, and cast its body and head down to Earth. However, Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, took pity on the lion. She revived the lion by tying its head back on with a red ribbon. She also gifted the lion with its horn and mirror. As gratitude, the lion becomes a disciple of Buddhism, and went on a quest to find the Ling Chi grass, which symbolizes longevity and would restore its power. Before it could eat the grass, it bowed three times: to the left (symbolizing Heaven), to the right (symbolizing Earth), and to the center (symbolizing Mankind). It then ate the grass, and fell asleep due to its effects. When it awoke, the lion had regained its power, and returned to Heaven.

There are many more myths and variants that exist which explain the origin of lions and the aspects of lion dancing. Lion dance is strongly correlated with Buddhism. As mentioned in some of the myths above, the Buddha is an important figure in taming the lion. Our team members are not necessarily Buddhist - we focus more on the cultural aspects of lion dance and how we can tie it into our community.



Lion dance dates back to the Tang Dynasty. While we've explored the mythical origin, there are two concrete events from which lion dance possibly stems from. The first is the cultural interaction between Persian performers and China. The Tang Dynasty was a Golden Age where China exchanged culture and art with other countries. Lions are not native in China, and lion dancing was one of the performances in the Persian Nevruz (meaning 'New Day') festival.

The second possibility is that it stemmed from an annual ritual of cleaning the imperial palace. The cleaning was both physical and spiritual; the spiritual aspect involved exorcising demons. Men dressed up as twelve sacred animals made three passes through the palace. The lion was one of these animals.

Lion dancing was also an important aspect of Buddhist blessing ceremonies because it exorcised demons. Buddhist temples were also the origin of kung fu. In 1644 when the Manchurians invaded China, the art of lion dancing was passed on through the martial arts schools, as associating with Buddhism meant death. Thus, to this day, lions are known to represent their martial arts schools.

The relationship between lion dance and kung fu schools reciprocally benefitted each other. Lion dance stances extend and reflect martial arts stances, such as horse stance (default for how performers stand under the lion), which is also a basic stance in kung fu. The quality and duration of the school's lion dancing represented the skill, stamina, and strength of the members of the school. Back then, competitions were held - the lion which performed the best and defeated the other lions earned money and prestige for their school. Blessing ceremonies may have also been sometimes competitive in nature. However, since lion dancers made their living off of winning performances, the history of lion dancing developed a darker era.

In the 1950s-60s, many lion dancers in Asian communities associated with gangs. Fights between lion dance troupes and martial arts schools were common. Performers used hidden daggers to slash at other troupes' lions and dancers and damage them. Some lions had metal horns for the same purpose. There were also some performance stunts which served to purposely attack other lions. Due to this, the Malaysian, Indonesian, and Hong Kong government banned lion dance for many years. Now, lion dance is usually practiced as a recreational activity and performed only for joyous occasions, such as New Year celebrations and weddings.



There are several common routines and rules lion dancers adhere to, all of which have roots in tradition. A performance typically has a minimum of 5 performers: 1 drummer, 1 gong player, 1 cymbal player, and 2 people for the lion. The drumming is a vital aspect of lion dance. Besides its mythological importance, it invigorates the lion and the changes in the beats and patterns help the lion know what part of the routine it is performing. There may also be a big-headed buddha with a fan, whose purpose is to guide the lion around and interact with the audience. He is the comedic effect of the performance.

A traditional routine consists of several parts, which may include all or some of the ones listed in order here:

  • Awakening - The lion is initially asleep, and grumpily wakes up as the drumming intensifies. It may clean itself and yawn, before it is finally fully awake and standing.
  • Opening - The lion bows three times (the bows represent the Heaven, Earth, and Man as stated in the myth earlier). If there is an entrance, it will step or jump over the threshhold and walk towards the main stage.
  • Playing - The lion will play and interact with the audience. This part is improvisational, and is an opportunity for the lion dancers to showcase their skill. For some performances, this is the best opportunity to give the lion red envelopes (if audience members have red envelopes).
  • Quest - The lion goes on a quest to find its food, which is usually lettuce (representing the long chi grass from earlier), or tangerines or other food. It will usually encounter some sort of obstacle or puzzle, or even another lion, which it must overcome in order to reach the food. In a cai ching ceremony (picking the greens), the food is typically lettuce with a red envelope with money stuffed in it and hung on a string in a high place. The lion must be able to reach the green in order to get the red envelope money; in a sense, this is how the lion is rewarded for its performance.
  • Eating - The lion will inspect and play with its food curiously for a while, then eat it. It will chew the food three times, then spit it out (once or three times depending on the performers). If it eats lettuce, the act is said to symbolize spreading wealth and prosperity. Being hit with the lettuce it spits out is considered lucky.
  • Closing - The lion bows three times again.
  • Sleeping - Having finished its purpose, the lion goes back to sleep.

An alternate routine is the drunken lion routine. It is similar to the one above, but instead of eating, the lion is rewarded with liquor for its feat, which it drinks. The lion then stumbles around for some time before going back to normal and bowing three times.

You may notice that there are some things lions do and don't do. For one, the lion dancer always enters and exits the lion from the lion's left side. Also, when the lion turns around, it always turns to the left. This is due to tradition, though the reason behind it is not clear.



A lot of aspects of the routines are symbolic. But the features of the lion itself are also symbolic of many things. Here is a list of features in lion dancing and lions and their corresponding symbolic meanings.

  • Lettuce - Represents the magical Long Chi grass, and prosperity. It is eaten, then spat out at the audience to spread the wealth.
  • Green - The color associated with lettuce and money, so it too represents wealth and luck. Lion noses are often this color.
  • Red - A lucky color, especially on Lunar New Year. Giving red envelopes containing money to the lion is considered to bring luck to the giver.
  • The number 3 - This is everywhere. There are three types of instruments in a performance, which each share the same basic shape - the circle. Lions always bow three times at a time. Our music also comes in threes (when the lion cleans the door, or eats lettuce, among other more subtle ones). You may be able to recognize it if you watch and listen closely.
  • Circle - Symbol of completion and restoration. For this reason, tangerines can be used instead of lettuce.
  • Zigzag-like walking - Lions almost never walk straight. Instead, they dart from side to side, and back and forth. This is said to confuse evil spirits, which are believed to move in straight lines.

The features below are the symbolic parts of a lion.

  • The 5 colors - The five colors are yellow, black, green, red, and white. They represent the five directions of the Chinese compass (including center), and the five elements of life (earth, water, wood, fire, and metal). These are the colors lions have most often.
  • Mirror - It is said that evil spirits and demons are afraid of their own reflection, since they are so terrifying to look at.
  • Ribbon - The red ribbon on the horn is a reminder to the lion to only do good things. It represents the ribbon Kwan Yin revived the lion with.
  • Red-Dotted eyes - Every lion must be awakened in an Eye-Dotting (Awakening) Ceremony. In this ceremony, the lion's eyes are dotted with red paint (or traditionally, pig's blood), so that the lion's spirit can foresee both good and evil.
  • Head and body - In some versions of the myth involving the mischevious lion, the lion's legs were cut off and its head and body were casted upon the earth. This is why lions have no legs, and the dancers must be the lion's legs.
  • Horn - Represents the phoenix, the symbol of life and regeneration.
  • Ears and Tail - Based on the Kirin, or Chinese unicorn. They represent wisdom and luck.
  • Beard and Forehead - Characteristic of dragons, representing strength and leadership. The length of a beard reflects the wisdom and age of the lion.




References | Background and Traditional Routines, Paper on Culture and Symbolism, More Origin Myths