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On the first day of the new year, it is very common to see dragon or lion dance everywhere. The origin is apparently based on a legend, where a mythical beast called Nian would come and attack villagers at the exact same time every year. They asked for help of a great colourful lion spirit who came and scared the beast away with a lot of noise. Unfortunately, the following year the lion was busy defending the Emperor’s palace, thus the villagers were left defenceless. They improvised by creating a false lion by using colourful clothes and bamboo, accompanied by noisy firecrackers to drive Nian away. It was proven to be successful, thus they repeated it every year to frighten bad spirit away and of course, to bring good luck.

A lion

One performer holds the lion’s head with both arms, while another one bends as its body and backside

For those who don’t know, the dance look rather simple. In reality, the music, steps, movements and rituals are deliberately planned and carefully executed. A simple mistake could doomed the client, which brings bad luck for the entire year. The “dancers” are actually martial artists, which explains how they can grab a bunch of lettuce 3m high in the air, while wearing such an intricate heavy costumes.

The intricate lion's costume

The intricate lion’s costume

The dance typically starts with loud firecrackers. The lions are sleeping and need to be waken up by, normally, the leader of the establishment or guests of honour, by dotting red ink on the lions’ mouth, eyes and forehead. Once they are awake, accompanied by musical instruments (minimum 3 pieces : drum, gong and cymbals), they will start their dance movements, sequence and rituals.

Leader of business establishment is taking food from the lion's mouth

Leader of business establishment is taking food from the lion’s mouth

Some food items, such as lettuce and mandarins are left out on the floor for the lion to snatch. The main performer pick them up and presents it to the client.

Standing on another performer's shoulders, he grabs the "green"

Standing on another performer’s shoulders, he grabs the “green”

The highlight of the dance is normally the acrobatic movements. The establishment hangs a head of lettuce and a decorative hangbao (red envelope – with payment enclosed) up in the air. These symbolise money and prosperity. The lion carefully approaches the lettuce and even test it to make sure that it is safe, not a dangerous item. After testing on the left and right sides, he does some steps to ward off any others that may want to eat his green. The person manipulating the head first removes the envelope and carefully places it inside his shirt. If it’s ever dropped would mean bad luck. Then he grabs the lettuce and “chews” it apart from within the costumes. He then “spits” it out first to the left, then to the right and then to the middle to help spread prosperity in all directions. The music then changes to higher and speedier beat and the head is raised and moved as if the lion is happy to have consumed his prize.

All were shot with Canon 50D, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L

 

 

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