Well, that explains the looks, but not the popularity of the dance. Its origins we should seek in a legend about Kuan Yin’s compassion. According to this myth - lion was a creature of heavens. It was as mystical as it was playful. Apparently one day it played one trick too many on the King of Heavens and ended up having its legs (or head – depending on the version) chopped of by the pissed emperor. The Goddess of mercy (Kuan Yin) took pity on the lion (women always have soft spot when it comes to animals). She ‘stitched it’ together adding some additional parts from other animals:
- The horn - shaped like a bird (from the phoenix). It symbolizes life and regeneration.
- The ears and the tail from ch’i-lin (pronounced Kay-Lun - Chinese unicorn - it represents wisdom and good luck).
- The spine represents a snake (symbol of charm and wealth).
- The back hump of the head represents the tortoise, (symbol of longevity).
- The forehead and the beard are from the dragon (strength and leadership).
During Chinese New Year celebration the Lion Dance is associated with a custom of "cai qing" (採青), literally meaning "plucking the greens". The lion approaches the ‘greens’ (usually lettuce) like a curious cat, and ‘eats’ it, only to ‘spit it out’ in a moment. Now you probably think why in the world anyone would try to feed a lion vegetables. It’s not a rabbit for havens sake. Well... it’s a mystical animal and apparently follows mysterious rules. In Chinese cǎi (採, pluck) sounds similar to cài (菜, meaning vegetable) and cái (财, meaning fortune). In a symbolic way the lion is appeased by the offering (which has also more materialistic meaning – there is a red envelope containing money attached to the lettuce) and later spreads good fortune and prosperity to the household (by spitting the greens).
If you ever have a chance to witness the lion dance consider yourself lucky. Maybe the lion will ‘spit’ some prosperity towards you as well.