JN117: Vietnamese Culture Series VIII: The difference between the lion and dragon dance

February 1, 2011

Dear everyone,

Today, in anticipation of Tet, I tried to make one of my favorite dishes, “Bun mang chay,” or vegetarian dried bamboo noodle soup. Rich, hearty, and infused with the earthy essence and chewiness of bamboo shoots that have been dried and rehydrated, it is an ethereal and little appreciated Vietnamese dish.

It was a total failure; apparently you’re supposed to boil and rinse the dried bamboo at least two or three times and then make a separate broth. I was lazy and boiled the bamboo once and then tried to make the broth by adding salt to the water the bamboo was boiled in. The broth was disgusting, sour and salty like gym-sock flavored lemonade, but not in a good way. I’ll keep working on it, because it is the year of the bunny-cat, and persistence will be rewarded.

Around this time, you see a lot of lion and dragon dances at lunar New Year celebrations. On the eve of Tet, the dancers, especially lion dancers, go around the town, performing in front of businesses and homes. People would hang up red li xi envelopes filled with money high on the roof, and the dancers would somehow find a way to reach the envelopes. Here are some frequently asked questions about these dances (and by Frequently Asked, I meant that I made them up):

Question 1: What’s the difference between the lion and dragon dance?

Answer: The lion dance can be performed by two people, whereas the dragon dance requires many more people, usually carrying poles. In some impressive displays, up to 50 or more people make up one dragon.

Question 2: What’s the origin of the lion dance?

Answer: There are varying legends. One is that there was a mischievous lion in heaven, who loved practical jokes. He screwed up so bad one day that the Jade Emperor decapitated him and threw his head and body down to earth. The Goddess of Mercy felt bad for him and stitched him up using a red ribbon. Then she made him dance for her. “Dance, lion, dance!” Then she would laugh maniacally while he danced for her amusement.

Question 3: Seriously?

Answer: No. The Goddess of Mercy did stitch him up, and she placed a mirror on his forehead to ward off evil. After that, I don’t know what happened.

Question 4: What about those scary clown-like monks who chase after the lion?

Answer: Another version is that there was a lion that terrorized a village (these poor villages are always terrorized by something). The villagers beat pots and pans to scare away the beast, but it didn’t work, so they recruited a monk, who managed to chase the thing away, probably through trying to feed it vegetarian food. This is why we have these scary monks chasing after the lion and antagonizing it with their fans in lion dances.

Question 5: What’s the “Hoi Gong”?

Answer: This is the eye-dotting ceremony for new lion costumes. It is meant to awaking the lion’s spirit. Any lions that have not gone through this ceremony may just bring misfortune. Don’t try it yourself, though. It’s pretty complicated.

Question 6: What about the Dragon dance? How did it originate?

Answer: In one story, the Dragon King had a terrible aching back. He disguised himself as an old man and sought a doctor on earth. The doctor felt the old man’s pulse and said, “Whoa, dude, you’re not human are you?” So the Dragon King reverted to his true self, and the doctor saw the problem: a centipede that had lodged itself on the Dragon King’s tummy behind one of his scales. Fully cured, the Dragon King promised good fortune as long as a dance was performed every year using the Dragon’s image.  

Question 7: What are the dances for?

Answer: Dragon or lion dances are used for a variety of reasons: To chase away evil spirits, to clear the air of negative energy, to bring good luck and fortune, to amuse royalty, and to avoid washing the dishes.

Question 8: What other animals are represented in these dances?

Answer: There are also the phoenix, turtle, and kylin, which is kind of like a deer/dragon/ox/unicorn hybrid. Lesser animals were also used, including the snail, two-toed sloth, leech, and amoeba, but they were discontinued when the crowds didn’t seem too excited by those dances.

Question 9: Were you ever in one of these dances?

Answer: In the 8th grade, I joined what I thought was a lion dance class. It turned out to be a line dance class. I was very confused when we had to do the Electric Slide.

OK, that’s all for today. I want to leave you with these words: Don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart; I just don’t think it’ll understand; and if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart, it’ll blow up and kill this man.

Now you won’t be able to get that stupid song out of your head.


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