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Lunar New Year: Lion dance steeped in history and tradition

"(The lion dance is) a way to help start the new year for many people and bring joy and luck to the community"

“The lion dance is a symbolic icon of Lunar New Year and it can’t be replaced.”

Eugenia Chau, a Richmond member of the Vancouver Chinese Lion and Dragon Dance Team, said the lion dance is a symbol of bringing in good luck and prosperity to people and businesses while driving away evil spirits as the new year approaches.

“The lion dance is part of a tradition that we have done many years ago, even before the Qing Dynasty,” said Chau.

“It’s a way to help start the new year for many people and bring joy and luck to the community.”

According to Chau, the lion dance came to be when a monster named Nian would terrorize villages and eat all their crops and livestock, leaving villagers helpless and praying to the gods for help.

As an answer to their cries for help, a lion was sent to protect the villagers and their properties by scaring the monster away, before returning to heaven.

Following this, villagers used bamboo and paper mache to make puppets that looked like the lion head, wore big costumes and danced to mimic the lion to protect themselves from the monster.

Chau told the Richmond News there are two types of lions, the northern and southern lions, which both have evolved since the early years.

The most common lion seen in Richmond and Metro Vancouver is the southern lion, which resembles an actual lion and is often portrayed in various colours.

The southern lion costume has three traditional colours: gold or yellow with white bristles, to represent Liu Bei, older of three generals and a descendent of the emperor bloodline; a red face with black bristles represented Guan Yu; and an almost all black lion representing the youngest Zhang Fei.

Chau added that more colours were incorporated in the lion dance costumes over the years, but the black lion dance costume is often used when martial arts schools want to challenge and fight another school.

When it comes to the costume, the lion head is the heaviest and most expensive part, according to Chau, who has been performing lion dances for the past 20 years.

Because the heads are all handcrafted and depending on the layers of material used, an adult-sized lion head can weigh about 12 to 15 pounds, while a lighter one is roughly six to seven pounds.

Lion heads can range from $500 to $3,000 (US), depending on the materials used and who crafted them.


Lion dances, drums, cymbals and firecrackers are the highlight of many traditional ceremonies, especially during the new year or even grand openings of businesses.

But before a new lion comes out to celebrate, there is a dotting ceremony that must be done, according to Chau.

“In the beginning, a new lion is supposed to do an eye-dotting ceremony, which symbolizes giving the lion a spirit and have it come to life,” said Chau.

Red powdered mineral paint is used to dot the eyes, forehead, nose and mouth of the lion head. Then it is used to paint from the horns to the tail, the ears and the four legs.

Afterwards, a red ribbon is tied onto the horn and two golden flowers are placed on each side of the horn.

Once the lion head is “given life” the lettuce ceremony and lion dance can be performed. This ceremony follows the story of a lion waking up and trying to find food.

Lettuce is normally hung at the entrance of businesses and the lion “eats” the lettuce and throws or spits it back out to the store owners of VIP guests.

“The owners and VIPs are supposed to catch the lettuce to symbolize lots of money and wealth coming their way in the coming year. This can be done for New Years as well as the grand opening of a store,” said Chau.


Performing the lion dance may look easy, but training and trust are the two most crucial things martial artists need in each other to perform it well, according to Chau.

Lion dance is a partner-based dance and depending if the partners are placed in the head or the tail, synchronization of the acrobatic and martial arts moves is important.

“The back or tail person have specific moves where they have to lift the person in front of them,” said Chau.

“You need trust in your partner in order to perform the lion dance.”

Chau told the News that their team takes training and upholding the lion dance tradition very seriously.

“This is our iconic symbol to celebrate Lunar New Year and we want to let other families and cultures know that this is what we do and why we do it.”