The Ancient History of Lion Dancing

Long ago, in ancient China, the people lived in fear of a terrible beast. This beast was known as the “Nian” to the people living in rual villages. It was said that the Nian would sleep throughout the year and only wake to feed at the ending of the Lunar Year. This was a time of great fear for the people, for year after year, the Nian would visit and destroy their homes and eat all of their food. The Nian was a fierce and giant beast. Those who stayed to fight did not survive, for the Nian ate people too. The Nian was especially fond of devouring children. Thus, year after year, the villagers would leave their homes to hide from the Nian.

One year, as the people were preparing to leave their homes, an old beggar visited the town. In the rush to get away, many of the villagers were busy with their own business. The beggar asked for food and shelter for the night but was ignored by most of the villagers. An elderly woman with a child saw the beggar and felt pity for the man. She offered him meager dumplings for him and warned that the Nian was due to visit anytime and that he should leave.

“The Nian will be here soon! Please take these for your journey. It is not safe to stay here tonight.”

The beggar was amused by the notion of leaving and asked if he could stay the night at her home as he was weary from traveling already. The woman did not have anything of value anyway so she decided to let him be. The two left with the other villagers, saddened that the man chose his fate with the Nian.

Waving as she left, the beggar called out to her, “I’ll be fine.”

The following day, the villagers returned to find that the woman’s home was un-harmed while the rest of the village was ransacked. Curious, the villagers looked for the beggar to find no sign of him. The child was determined to remember him so he could learn his secrets. The elderly woman’s home was painted red, had evidence of a fire being built, and pots and pans laying by the door. The villagers now saw a way to ward off the Nian.

Day after day, the villagers discussed what the items meant. Seeing as it was simple to paint their houses red, the whole village followed suit. The uses of fire and pots still eluded the villagers. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and finally the Lunar New Year was upon them once more. Still unsure as to how to use their clues, some families made fires in front of their homes and had pots by their doors.

When the Nian came to visit the village, it was hesitant. Things had changed. It was cautious as it approached the first house. The family within were frightened. Although cautious, the Nian still approached the house, the smell of food too enticing. In fear the man of the house clanged the pots together. The Nian, ever cautious, was startled by the noise. Seeing the Nian’s reaction, he continued until the Nian left, discouraged, to the next house. Having watched the first house, soon all the village was making as much noise as possible. That was the first year the Nian left without destroying the village.

Years passed and each New Year was spent building fires and now, using drums, cymbals, and gongs to scare the Nian away. Once again, the beggar had found his way back to their village. The child recognized him at once and called all the villagers to greet the man who saved their village. Everyone wanted to speak to him to learn the secrets of defeating the Nian.

Humbled by their sincerity, he confided that he was in fact a Buddhist Monk traveling to gain enlightenment. Awed by his presence and knowledge the villagers asked what the clues he left really meant.

He said simply, “The Nian is a simple beast. I have traveled very far and have learned much about beasts. The color red is a natural sign of danger for animals. Beasts fear loud noises and fire. If you combine it all, you can scare away the Nian.” The monk explained how to combine the loud noises and fire by showing them how to make firecrackers.

Impressed by his knowledge, the villagers asked him if there was a way to be rid of the Nian forever.

The Monk replied, “Any beast would fear another beast that is fiercer than it is.”

To which the villagers asked, “What is the most fearsome beast of all?”

The Monk thought long and hard. After a moment of silence, he replied, “The most fearsome beast of all would be the Lion. It is the King of all Beasts.” He then proceeded to describe the lion to the villagers. “Perhaps if you dressed as the lion and were as fierce as a lion, the Nian would not return.”

To thank the Monk, they held a banquet in his honor and began preparations for the next Lunar New Year. They crafted a lion’s head and tail for men to don on the New Year. They practiced for months to be as fierce as a lion. To be as courageous as a lion. To embody the spirit of the lion. The villagers then incorporated the drums, cymbals, and gongs to make everything as loud and dramatic as possible.

When the next New Year arrived, the Nian returned once again. Cautious, the Nian approached the village. This time however, the drums and cymbals ushered in the appearance of the lion dancers. Fierce and imposing in their movements, the dancers showed great courage and strength the Nian had never seen before. The Nian feared this new beast. This new beast was not afraid of the red surroundings. Nor was it afraid of the loud noises and fire. It danced happily among all the dangerous things the Nian feared. The Nian, believing that this new beast had taken this area as its home, left to never return again.

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