Rather surprisingly China does not have any native lions, which makes it seem rather surprising that lions should form such a key part of the Chinese culture. For example, I'm sure you will have seen 'temple lions', pairs of lions which stand at the entrance to key buildings such as temples or that are sold in miniature as ornaments. So where did the lions come from? Well the answer lies in the same place that kung fu owes its origins to - the Silk Road. Many cultural influences passed between India, China and surrounding countries via this trading route. There are those that argue that it was in part the demands for better self-defence when travelling this route that lead to the development and spread of the martial arts.
Perhaps because China has no lions of its own the form of the traditional Chinese lion bears little resemblance to a real lion. In fact the lion used in the lion dance has a single horn in the middle of its head! None the less, the lion is a strong symbol of strength, courage and wisdom.
Lion dancing is an ancient ritual dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) and although its exact origins are unclear it can be traced back to two historical possibilities:
The first possibility is related to bands of Persian performers who roamed China. During the Tang Dynasty the Chinese exchanged cultural influences with other countries and the lion was one of the many acts in the Persian 'new day' festival.
The second possibility is that lion dancing can be traced to the annual cleaning of the imperial palace. Each New Year the palace was cleaned; physically and spiritually. Men dressed as twelve sacred animals made three passes through the palace. The lion was one of these animals. This purification ritual extended to Buddhist practices and, as we all know, there is a close link between Buddhism and the formation of the Chinese martial arts and kung fu in particular.
Of course there are myths associated with the lion. One such story is that a Tang Dynasty emperor had a dream in which a strange creature saved his life. The next day the emperor described the dream to his ministers. One of the ministers explained to the emperor that the strange creature resembled a lion which came from the west. The emperor ordered his ministers to recreate the lion he saw in his dream and the lion subsequently became a symbol of good luck, happiness and prosperity.
Another myth describes the events surrounding a village that was being overrun by rats. One day a lion appeared and ate all of the rats (odd, considering China does not have native lions!). Once the lion had eaten all the rats it turned on the villagers. A Buddhist monk in the village is said to have captured the lion and taught it Buddhism. Following a remarkable personality change the tame lion served to protect the village it once terrorised. There is actually a variation on this story that says that the villagers dressed up in lion costumes and made a lot of noise to scare off the lion - hence the lion dance.
Another myth concerns the goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin. In this story the lion was a heavenly creature that was fond of causing trouble and practical jokes. Displaying very poor judgment the lion played a joke on the Jade Emperor who was so enraged he promptly cut off the lion's head. Kwan Yin felt sorry for the lion and decided to help him. She used a long red ribbon to reattach the lion's head and brought the lion back to life. Kwan Yin also gave the lion its horn which it could use to fight with and also a mirror to frighten away evil spirits (so that's where the horn comes from!).
In this article we have had an introduction to lion dancing and seen that is it a tradition closely associated with kung fu schools. We have also seen that its origins and history are complex and difficult to pin down definitively. What we can say though is that it is a key part of Chinese cultural tradition to bring prosperity and good fortune.