When I was 10-years-old my mother enrolled me in kung fu lessons. She was hoping I would develop some valuable characteristics, get some exercise and most importantly have the confidence to protect myself. Choy Li Fut was a form of Chinese martial art that incorporated the disciplines of Shaolin with the dharma in Buddhism. From what I remember, classes took place in a community centre’s auditorium. Instructors lined up students and rehearse choreographed movements, a lot like aggressive line dancing without the dosey-doe. But I had no interest in punching air, side kicking imaginary enemies and making exaggerated grunts. What caught my eyes were the colourful beasts lying in the corner of the room.
Occasionally a pair of senior students will hold up the wooden framed head and the canvas body and cloak themselves within. I would observe from the distance, cross-legged and in awe. Suddenly I was in a zoo anticipating all the animal’s movement. I was delightfully entertained, but I didn’t understand the relevance of lion dancing. Was it martial arts or was it theatrical performance?
My mom took me out of martial arts after noticing my lack of interest. But I was still rather fond of the lions. Once in awhile during Chinese festivities, I would see a performance out in public. Up upon pedestals, working through a series of obstacles and well-practiced stunts, the lion dancers maneuver their way towards a head of cabbage and a scroll of good tidings.
I was walking through a shopping mall with a friend, who was unfamiliar with this Chinese tradition. It was nearing the Lunar New Year and in the central atrium was a lion dance performance. I tried to explain briefly that everything the Orients do is based around achieving good fortune. But that was an unsatisfying explanation. There was after all a deep history to lion dancing, one that dates back to ancient China thousand years ago.
Although lions are rarely seen in eastern Asia today, indigenous lions once populated the region. They were the courageous protectors. In front of Chinese buildings and plazas, stone guardians are often resurrected to fend off evil spirits. The way legend tells it, the Imperial Dragon had nine sons; the eighth, Suanni had the features of a lion. Stern and pensive, the lion signified regality, knowledge and wisdom. So why were they dancing to the sounds of cymbals, gongs and firecrackers?
Today, lion dances are not only saved for consecration of temples, grand opening of business, weddings and other religious rites, they are an art form. Competitions are held all around the world showcasing the performers’ acrobatic skills. As the myths and stories fade into obscurity, the tradition remains a substantial part of Asian heritage, linking the past with the present. While some traditions are mundane and tedious, lion dancing inspire body and soul and entertains the spirit within.
Be sure to catch the Chinese New Years parade on Sunday February 17 and see the finest lion dancers and other artists and craftsmen. Festivities will take place on Pender and Keefer Street in Vancouver Chinatown. Gung hay fat choy and see you there.