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Chinese New Year Lion Dance: Its Origin and the Best Place to Observe in Hong Kong

The Lion Dance is one of the most well-known Chinese New Year traditions as it symbolises driving away evil spirits and bringing prosperity and good luck to its audience. Honouring this age-old ritual, The Peninsula Hong Kong will host its most elaborate rendition yet on February 1. 

By Ashlyn Chak
January 28, 2022

The upcoming Lunar New Year is the Year of the Tiger, but when it comes to traditions, even the tiger has to make way for the other king of the animal kingdom—the lion. A cherished form of ritual symbolising prosperity and good luck, the Lion Dance has been performed for thousands of years at celebratory events and festivals (i.e. Lunar New Year) in Chinese culture and other Asian countries; and as with other well-known CNY traditions, it too comes with a fascinating backstory. 

Photo: The Peninsula Hong Kong

In ancient Chinese texts, the earliest records of dancers wearing animal masks for exorcism rituals date back as early as the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), the very first dynasty of Imperial China. Since then, different versions of the dance have appeared throughout history, but the most common one is the Southern Lion or Cantonese Lion Dance. 

Originated from Guangdong, there are many tales associated with the origin of the Southern Lion. One of the most prevalent legends has it that a mythical monster called Nian (” translates to Year”) would attack a village once a year, causing havoc and eating all the food. Until one day, a monk came along and tamed Nian by tying a red ribbon around its fierce horn. From then on, the monster acted as the guardian of the village, protecting instead of attacking the villagers. Another story has it that the Qianlong Emperor dreamt of an auspicious animal whilst on a tour of Southern China and ordered the image of the animal be recreated to be used during festivals. 

Photo: The Peninsula Hong Kong

Today, various forms of the Lion Dance are found widely in East and Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, as well as among the communities in the Himalayan region. With the intention to drive away evil spirits and invite good fortunes, dancing lions are usually seen at New Year parades, but they can actually be for any special occasion from birthdays and weddings to business openings—any event that can use a bit of extra luck. A Lion Dance is loud with drums, gongs, and cymbals, which contributes to the festive atmosphere of a traditional Lunar New Year’s celebrations. However, there is more to the instruments, which all have symbolisms: the drum serves as the lion’s heartbeat, directing the action, whereas the gong and cymbals help to scare away evil spirits. 

Photo: The Peninsula Hong Kong

One of the best ways to observe the intriguing spectacle is at The Peninsula Hong Kong, which has honoured the Chinese New Year tradition of the Lion Dance for more than 40 years by hosting its own magnificent renditions of the ritual. This year on the morning of New Year’s Day (February 1), to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Tiger, the hotel will present its large scale performance on The Sun Terrace, featuring nine lions and one dragon (subject to social distancing restrictions). This is also the establishment’s first year to have a customised Lion Dance with three bespoke Peninsula red and gold lions and a curated choreography.  

For those not attending the festivities on The Sun Terrace, the lions will make their way through the lobby and restaurant area, so guests may just catch a glimpse, too. And if not, the hotel’s elaborate festive decorations of peach blossoms, red flowers, kumquat bushes, and festive lanterns are sure to impart luck, blessings, and good fortune to visitors nonetheless.