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Lion dance history & origins are based on Chinese superstition and folklore. Many myths and legends concerning the origins of the lion dance. Some of the more popular legends are the Buddhist Theory, The Exorcism theory, The chivalrous theory, the patriots theory, the emperors dream theory, the emperors pet lion and the foreign tribute of a lion. Some of these stories or legends only concern the Northern Lion, while others concern the Southern lion. Here are two of the most popular legends.

The martials arts theory: According to this legend, there was a fierce beast or lion menacing a local village. Martial artists gathered together to hunt the creature. They confronted the beast three times, but were defeated in their attempts to subdue it. The martial artist then trained the local villagers and together they conquered the beast, as a celebration of remembrance, they constructed an image of the beast and used it for a victory dance where they displayed kung fu skills.

The Emperors dream theory: This legend is about an Emperor who had a dream of a very strange and wonderful animal. After the dream he had his artist produce a rendering of the creature and a costume of it. A dance was devised that reproduced the movements of the creature as the Emperor saw in his dream.

During the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the rise of the invading the corrupt Ching Dynasty, the Futshan lion dance has been associated with Southern systems of kung fu. With the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty, secret societies were formed consisting of revolutionary martial artist and Shaolin Monks, whose purpose was to overthrow the Ching Dynasty and restore the Ming Dynasty. They used the lion dance as a secret means of communication and the performance as a means to travel undetected, while at the same time carrying out covert operations against the Ching rulers. They also used the lion dance as a means to secretly practice and enhance their kung fu skills.

The lion dance is separated into Northern and Southern regions of China. The Northern lion dance is quite different in appearance, movement and purpose. The Northern lion looks like a giant, playful shaggy dog and is primarily used in a circus performances. The Southern lion is a very strange looking creature resembling a cross between a lion, unicorn and dragon. These features incorporated are the horn of the phoenix, the ears and tail of the unicorn, the beard of a dragon and a mirror on its forehead to ward off evil demonds. Demons are prevalent in Chinese superstition and mythology. In essence the Southern lion dance performance is a rite of exorcism to bring good luck and prosperity. It is used mainly during Chinese New Year celebrations, street parades, and new business or restaurant openings. Also used in competitions around the world.

The Southern Lion is a composition of magical and mystical elements. Depending on its place of manufacture in China, the head of the Lion can take two shapes, the Hokshan which has a longer and narrower head with a protruding mouth. Besides being known as the Hokshan lion, it is also known as the Dragon Lion Head or the Duck Billed Lion. This style is lively but non aggressive type of lion dancing it is most popular in Malaysia, Singapore and with Competition teams. The Hokshan lion comes from an area in China where there is a mountain called Crane Mountain Hence the names Hok meaning Crane and Shan meaning mountian.

Futshan Lion has a shorter back to front head, is wider and has a shorter mouth. The Futshan lion is also known as the Tiger Lion head. This is the lion of choice used by kung fu artists; hence its movements are aggressive, quick and involve a lot of Kung Fu Stances. This is the most popular style in Hong Kong and most Chinese communities around the world. the Futshan lion comes from an area where there is a mountain called Buddha Mountain Hence the name Fut meaning Buddha and shan meaning mountain.

The Southern lion head comes and accompanying body come in various overall colour themes. These themes give the lion type its name which is based on three generals known as the Three Sworn Brothers of the Peach Garden from Chinese history and immortalisation in the Chinese classic novel romancing of the Three Kingdoms. Their names, and hence the lions name are based on the colour theme, are Lau Bei yellow face, white beard, Guan Gung red face, black beard and Zhang Fei black and green face with black beard. These generals where brothers and are also known as first, second and third sons, Lau Bei being first brother, Guan Gung being the second brother and Zhang Fei being the third brother. Each one has his own personality and disposition and hence so do the lions have their distinct colours and persona. Lau Bei is the most auspicious and wise lion, the one used by long established Kung Fu schools. Lau Bei is also the one most often used in lion dance performances where good luck and prosperity want to be ensured. Guan Gung is the brave and loyal lion and is used by more newly established Kung Fu schools, while Zhang Fei is known as the fighting lion because of its brash and pugnacious nature, used by new Kung Fu schools wishing to establish themselves in the community. Today there are also many other colours of lions such as Gold, purple, red and pink etc.

Below are some examples of the different styles of lions as explained above.