HONOLULU (KHON2) — Lunar New Year is a big deal in Hawai’i. With the influx of Chinese immigrants to the islands over a hundred years ago came a deeply traditional life.
One of those traditions is the lion dance. But, where does this tradition come from? China has never had lions. And, how did the dance become synonymous with the Lunar New Year?
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To find this answer, one must distill quite a bit of information that is spread out all over the internet.
Going through a multitude of historical claims, there seems to be a couple of myths that track one another over and over — the legends of the Silk Road.
What was the Silk Road?
The Silk Road was a trade route that connected West Asia to East Asia and the Central Asia in between. This trade route built the ancient world and secured many kingdoms’ powers.
Most historians agree that the Silk Road came to be circa 138 B.C.E. to connect two major emerging world powers, Rome and China.
It was along this trade route that historians credit with the emergence of martial arts. It has been proposed that martial arts, in particular Kung Fu, was created as a means of protecting oneself along the passage.
This route is also responsible for converging cultures as well. Lion dancers traditionally from Persia are said to have brought their stories and beliefs into China this way. Also during the Han Dynasty [circa 205 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.], lions from the west were given as gifts to trade for silk.
Lions became associated with wealth and prosperity.
The Buddhist connection.
The Buddhist tradition of utilizing lions as a symbol of good luck came from these trade relationships. Buddhism originated in India, where lions did exist.
Legend has it, there was a temple over run with rats. The Buddhist monks brought in a lion to eat all the rats, but the lion then turned on the villagers and began eating them as well. The monks had to tame the lion. They did this by indoctrinating it into Buddhism and helping the lions to integrate into the culture of the village.
Hence, the lion became peaceful, recognized the value of life and became a protector. This is how Buddhist historians interpret the use of the lion symbolism in their religion.
This is a fascinating mythology. Makes one ponder what really happened and how this symbolism came to be as a means of communicating this story. Was it Persians that they brought in to deal with consumerism that had overrun a village and threatened their peaceful existence? One has to wonder…
Enter the Tang Dynasty.
The Tang Dynasty [circa 716-907 C.E.] did the most to enshrine lions into Chinese mythology.
Legend has it that an emperor had a dream about a creature that had saved his life. When he described the creature to his ministers, they immediately believed the emperor was describing a beast from the west known as a lion.
After this, the lion became associated with protection and wealth; and lion dances proliferated as a means of spreading good fortune and luck at various festivals and celebrations.
The Jade Emperor and goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin.
Another legend centers on the Jade Emperor and Kwan Yin. For reference, the Jade Emperor is one of China’s most revered deities. He is considered to be China’s very first emperor and exemplifies fairness, benevolence and mercy. He is said to preside over the new year transition, judging actions of the past year and doling out punishments or rewards in the new year according to his judgement.
In this story, the lion was a mischievous heavenly creature that played practical jokes. Unfortunately for the lion, it chose to pick on the wrong person.
The Jade Emperor became infuriated that he was targeted by the lion for a practical joke, so he had the lion decapitated.
When Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, saw this, she took sympathy on the lion. She used a long ribbon to create a body for the lion’s head and attached them.
This brought the lion back to life. She is also cited for being the one who gave the lion its horn as a way for the lion to protect itself from future danger. She is also credited with giving the lion its mirror so it can ward off evil.
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So, that’s it in a nutshell. Lion dances in the East are around 1,500 to 2,000 years old. It was an imported tradition from west Asia that was able to maintain its importance throughout the years as a cultural tradition, passing fortune and luck on to one generation after the next.