The History of Lion Dance

Lion dance is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture and other Asian countries in which performers mimic a lion's movements in a lion costume to bring good luck and fortune. Each lion is controlled by two people, one orchestrating the head movements and the other in the tail following head’s footwork while working the tail at the same time. The lions are accompanied by percussion music including drum, cymbals, and gong.

Lions are not native to China, but there are many stories that are told about the origins of lion dance. A favorite of our members is the Nian story, which goes: a long time ago, there was a peaceful village near the mountains of Southern China. Every new year, a monster would come from the mountains and terrorize the village, eating crops and children. It would make a “Nian” sound, giving it its name. “Nian” 年 also means year in Chinese. The monster was scared of loud noises, fire, and the color red, so the villagers fashioned a costume and accompanied it with firecrackers and loud banging on pots to scare the monster away. The villagers successfully scared the Nian away with the loud noises and the costume. That costume is now known as a Chinese Lion, and now every year, in remembrance of that event, they perform what is now known as lion dance. Penn Lions practices a southern style of lion dance called Hok San, which originated in the Guangdong province. This style emphasizes cat-like movements and difficult tricks called stacks.

A lion dance choreography often tells a story involving an act of overcoming a puzzle known as a cheng before obtaining a meaningful object (e.g cabbage, scrolls, etc). Some of the obstacles include traditional poisonous animals, such as snakes and spiders, caves, mountains, and rivers, which are constructed from combinations of spears, knives, benches, and other props. The culmination of many lion dance performances is the cai qing (菜青), or picking of the greens. Cai qing is a homonym for spreading good fortune (财青).

The History of Penn Lions

Penn Lions is the University of Pennsylvania’s traditional Chinese lion dance troupe. Founded in 2007, our mission is to learn, teach and perform the traditional art of lion dance in and around the Greater Philadelphia area.

Lion dance brings good luck and fortune to audiences and is often seen during the Lunar New Year. Year-round, Penn Lions offers a variety of performances including weddings, school festivals, and community events.

Penn Lions was founded in 2007 during Lunar New Year when one of the founding members, Henry Chow, realized that such an integral art and tradition was missing from a campus that had such a large Asian population. The idea first began during CSA’s Lunar New Year celebration when Henry Chow and Alan Hsu put together a makeshift lion dance in two weeks with no previous experience. After researching troupes at other schools, the Penn Lions mission statement was drafted: to learn, demonstrate, and teach the traditional art of lion dance.

In the following fall, Henry met Winston Ma during the activities fair. With ten years of lion dance experience, Winston became Penn Lions’ first artistic director who taught the members the fundamentals of lion dance. The first class of Penn Lions included Henry Chow (‘10), Derek Ma (‘10), Carlin Yuen (‘10), Philip Hsiao (‘11), Winston Ma (‘11), Samantha Ni (‘11), and Michael Zhao (‘11). They practiced all over campus, from McClelland South Lounge to ARCH 314 while moving equipment to and from dorm rooms. Penn Lions made its official debut on February 7, 2008 at the Lunar New Year Celebration in Harnwell’s Rooftop Lounge.

In the spring of 2010, Penn Lions won the Ivy League Champion title at the East Coast Intercollegiate Lion Dance Competition held at Columbia University. In 2012, Penn Lions organized the second annual east coast intercollegiate lions dance competition and hosted seven different troupes. Since then, Penn Lions has continued on to win the 2013 and 2016 East Coast Intercollegiate Lion Dance titles and hosted the 2014 and 2017 competitions.

More than ten years after debuting, Penn Lions has fostered dozens of lion dancers and held over 200 performances. Other past performances include performances for Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter, Delaware Senators, US ambassadors, US Men’s national soccer team, CCTV, NBC, ABC, weddings, GoogleNYC, and numerous nonprofit organizations.