During the Chinese New Year, countries around the world perform the traditional Lion Dance. In the Philippines, a majority of the businesses in Binondo continue to have the traditional dance with the belief that it will help them bring prosperity in the new year and in their endeavors.
Ivan Man Dy, the Founder of Old Manila Walks, recently shared the rich history and cultural significance of the lion dance in Philippine society.
Why the lion?
Dy gave an in-depth overview of the importance of lions in traditional Chinese culture. He mentioned that when people visit China, most especially Beijing, people would notice that there were numerous lion statues at the entrances of major architectural sites, temples, and palaces, even on the culturally significant Marco Polo Bridge and imperial tombs.
“Just by looking at the lions on [their] placements, you’ll realize that lions are auspicious creatures because, for one, you really wouldn’t put a motif or an element if it’s not auspicious, especially in an imperial palace at the Forbidden City,” Dy said. He added that even modern-day Chinese place the lion statues at entrances of sites, like banks and other buildings.
Lions may not exist in China, but due to China’s cultural contact and exchange with the Middle Eastern countries during the Han Dynasty, ancient Chinese started adapting the lion figures to guard Middle Eastern palaces. Furthermore, Dy remarked that the Chinese started making their own version of the lion, associating it with mythology and being auspicious.
Lion dances throughout the Chinese dynasties
“And eventually throughout the centuries, [the lion symbol] evolved, so much so during the Tang dynasty in China,” Dy shared. “A poet named Bai Ju Yu actually recorded a dance that they were doing that was inspired by these mythical lion creatures, how he described basically the steps on how they did a lion dance at that time. And this was 1,400 years ago approximately.”
Legend has it that a Tang dynasty emperor had a dream one night in which a strange-looking animal saved his life. And upon sharing the dream to his ministers the next morning, they told him that it resembled a lion. Because of this, the lion quickly became a symbol of good luck throughout China. They believed its dances could help drive away spirits and attract prosperity.
“And by the Song dynasty, which was about 1,000 years ago, we have this painting by the painter Su Hanchen, depicting a lion dance with kids in it. It’s celebrating the arrival of spring, and in the Chinese Lunar New Year, the arrival of [the] spring season coincided with the Lunar New Year. So you have the new season, and new Lunar New Year, so it’s quite fitting.”
It was not long until the Chinese eventually had the chance to migrate to other places in southeast Asia, sharing their traditions, beliefs, and culture. Thus, even today, ethnic Chinese communities throughout southeast Asia continue to proudly celebrate the culture, most especially the lion dance.
Over the years, the lion dance never lost its significance and has become the most important opening ceremony or ritual for Chinese events, most especially for businesses and the Chinese New Year, ushering good luck and driving away evil spirits and negative energy.
What’s the difference between the lion dance and the dragon dance, which is also celebrated during the Chinese New Year? Find out about the dragon dance here.