Lion dancers in Pearl River Mart at Chelsea Market

A Little About Lion Dancing

Who doesn’t love a good lion dance? The cymbals, the drumming, the acrobatic feats, and not to mention the pure joy giant dog-like legendary creatures bring to people of all ages. You might know lion dancing is an integral part of Lunar New Year celebrations, but what does it mean and where does the tradition come from? Here are some fun facts you might not know about lion dancing.

Lions are not native to China

There’s a reason the lions in lion dancing don’t really look like Simba. For many years in Chinese culture, they were considered legendary creatures and therefore left to the imagination. They also came to symbolize strength, stability, and superiority.

You might have a monster to thank for lion dancing

According to legend, Lunar New Year traditions like setting off firecrackers and lion dancing came about to scare away a monster called Nian (which by the way also sounds like the Chinese word for "year"). To scare away this terrible, destructive beast, villagers dressed up as their own ferocious creature, complete with clamorous drums and cymbals, to scare Nian away.

It involves martial arts and acrobatics

Originating over a thousand years ago, many of lion dancing’s basic stances and movements come from kung fu. You might also see some acrobatic feats, like jumping on and off high stools as well as dancing on stilts. The World Lion Dance Championship in Malaysia takes stilt dancing to the (literally) the next level.

Lion dancing isn’t only festive, it’s lucky

While there’s no doubt lion dancing creates a fun and festive atmosphere, they’re also believed to bring good fortune and prosperity. That’s why you’ll see it not just on Lunar New Year but whenever a new business opens as well as on what’s known as “Super Saturday” in New York, a designated day on which lion dancers bless businesses through Manhattan’s Chinatown.

What’s with the lettuce?

You might notice that “eating” (and spitting out) lettuce is part of the act. That’s because the word for lettuce in Chinese, “cai,” sounds like the one for “wealth.”

Lions get hong bao too

Children and the unmarried aren’t the only ones lucky enough to get auspicious money in red envelopes. Business owners give hong bao to lion dancers as an offering for wealth and prosperity to come.

UPDATE: Check out the most recent performance from the incredible Wan Chin Ming Dragon Lion Dance Team. You can also learn even more about Lunar New Year customs and traditions.
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