There are many myths about how lions and lion dance originated. One myth is also the origin of the Lunar New Year celebrations. The story is as follows: There was a monster named Nian (Chinese word for "year") that came once a year to a village to eat its harvest and people. The villagers always fled to the mountains to avoid being eaten by Nian. One year, a lion showed up and chased away the monster. However, in the following years the lion wasn't there. The villagers made a lion costume and had two people wear it to scare away Nian. In addition to the lion likeness, the villagers wore red, played loud drums, and set off firecrackers, since Nian didn't like any of these either. This is why Lunar New Year is celebrated with all of these aspects. This time the villagers did not have a lion to protect themselves. So, they solved the problem by creating a costume likeness of a lion and two villagers used it to scare “Nian” away. This is the reason the lion dance is performed every Chinese New Year.
A similar myth is that the lion itself was the Nian in the previous story. This time, a Buddhist monk came to the village and told the villagers to wear red and make loud noises to scare the lion away. The Buddha himself went after the lion into the mountains to tame it and teach it Buddhism. They returned, and the lion became the protector of the village. The monk himself became known as the Big-Headed Buddha. From this myth, lion dance serves to bring luck and prosperity.
This myth is more closely related to the history of lion dance than other myths. There was an Emperor who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.). The Emperor had a dream about a mysterious animal saving his life. When the Emperor woke up, he asked his ministers what the creature was. They told him it resembled the lion, which was a creature from the West. He then had his artists and masons create art and statues of the lion. Due to this, the lion became the symbol of prosperity, happiness and good luck.
The last myth explains the origin of the lion as a creature that lived in the heavens. The lion was very playful and mischevious, but the Jade Emperor decided it caused too much trouble. He ordered the lion's head be cut off as punishment, and cast its body and head down to Earth. However, Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, took pity on the lion. She revived the lion by tying its head back on with a red ribbon. She also gifted the lion with its horn and mirror. As gratitude, the lion becomes a disciple of Buddhism, and went on a quest to find the Ling Chi grass, which symbolizes longevity and would restore its power. Before it could eat the grass, it bowed three times: to the left (symbolizing Heaven), to the right (symbolizing Earth), and to the center (symbolizing Mankind). It then ate the grass, and fell asleep due to its effects. When it awoke, the lion had regained its power, and returned to Heaven.
There are many more myths and variants that exist which explain the origin of lions and the aspects of lion dancing. Lion dance is strongly correlated with Buddhism. As mentioned in some of the myths above, the Buddha is an important figure in taming the lion. Our team members are not necessarily Buddhist - we focus more on the cultural aspects of lion dance and how we can tie it into our community.