Why you should let the Chinese lion spit at you

Traditional lion dance is synonymous with Chinese New Year, celebrations would not be complete without experiencing lion dance at least once. Widely practised across Southeast Asia, lion dance dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD). Today, it continues to be a popular performance used for opening ceremonies, formal occasions, and primarily during Chinese New Year.

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@jamesturnback via Twenty20

Symbolism of the lion dance:

  • the lion as a symbol of courage, stability and supremity
  • the combination of lion dance with the boisterous noise of firecrackers, clashing gong and cymbals, drums – believed to scare away evil spirits, dispel bad luck
  • usher in good fortune

Costume and setup:

  • Each “lion” is made up of 2 well-trained kungfu practitioners – one as the lion’s “head”, the other as “body and tail”.
  • “Head” and “eyes” (yes, the lids open and close during the dance) bring vitality and longevity;
  • “Tail” sweeps away the bad and unpleasant remains from last year.
  • Note the reflective object between the eyes – this acts as a mirror to dispel any negative energy the lion meets
  • Horn and red ribbon – the horn fights evil with its sharp edge, the red ribbon is critical in indicating that the performing lion is “awoken” and “tamed” before it’s allowed to perform

The useful sidekicks

You will see a monk-like character with an oversized headgear, or a Chinese doll with a fan. These characters are for comic relief and crowd control, but they actually act as a useful guide for the lions during tricky stunts.

Styles of lion dance

There are the southern and northern styles, but we focus our discussion on the southern style that is more common.

The southern lion dance originated from Guangdong and is more commonly seen in southeast asia. The performance mimics the lion’s actions such as scratching, shaking of the body, or licking of paws.

Lion’s got the moves

Besides mimicking the lion’s moves, the performance typically reaches its peak with the lion stalking a head of lettuce, eating it and spitting it out at the audience. A “red packet” containing a token sum of money is attached to the lettuce, as a token of exchange for the blessing bestowed by the lion.

This action is also known as “plucking the greens” or “Cai Qing”, synonymous with “plucking the wealth and fortune”. So if the lion spits at you with the vegetables, smile and welcome your wealth with open arms.

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Other routines may include eating mandarin oranges, the lion performs a series of acrobatic stunts to reach for the oranges, “eats” them and unveils auspicious Chinese words formed by the peeled oranges. Skilled lion dance troupes could sometimes form Chinese well wishes in phrases!

Do’s:

  • smile and be friendly when the lion approaches you (so you don’t turn your back on good luck)
  • feel free to pat the lion

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Don’ts:

  • touch the lion’s horn or its mirror as they are used to fight evil
  • offer the lion anything white to eat (white = color of death and deemed unlucky)
  • step over a resting lion (disrespectful)
  • pat the lion on its butt (remember that’s a human beneath)
  • provide rock hard lettuce that is impossible to peel with bare hands

Who hires the lion dance

  • shopping malls
  • retail shops
  • households
  • offices
  • anyone really, never say no to extra good luck right?

We hope this helps you appreciate the Chinese lion dance better and enjoy the festivities coming up! Leave us a note on Facebook if you’d like us to answer any queries about Chinese New Year activities or practices.


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