Lion Dance in Brunei

I wrote the following article for my column, The Golden Legacy which was published on Brunei Times on Monday, 7th February 2011.


The Lion Dance in Brunei

The only known description of how Chinese New Year was celebrated in Brunei Darussalam can be found in the book written by Peter Blundell entitled “City of Many Waters” which was published in 1923 in England. Peter Blundell wrote about Brunei Darussalam at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. He was an engineer with the cutch factory in Brunei. Cutch then was the equivalent of today’s oil exports for Brunei Darussalam.

In his dealings in Brunei, Peter Blundell came across all segments of the Brunei society. He wrote about them and was very honest about what he wrote about.

About the Chinese New Year, Peter wrote “... the Chinese opens the New Year proceedings with processions in which dragons, serpents, devils and other creature figures. He lights paper lanterns, lets off fire-works, and pays great attention to his joss. He feeds, till he bursts almost, on birds’ nests, sharks’ fins, duck and beef, mixed with many curious vegetables. And if he wishes he may gamble all day long without paying any fee or license ...”

Interestingly enough it was only after 1906 that the Chinese opened up shops on dry land. Prior to that, their shops and business premises were at Kampong Bakut China which was in the middle of Kampong Ayer. Kampong Bakut China was on a sand bank (bakut in Brunei Malay). Today that village is known as Kampong Pekan Lama (Old Town Village) acknowledging the fact that it once served as the town centre or central business area.

The procession described by Peter Blundell could only have taken place on dry land as it would have been difficult to hold such procession over water.

Peter Blundell did not mention lions though lions presumably were among the dragons, serpents, devils and other creatures that he described. If that is so, then the lion dance in Brunei Darussalam is more than a hundred years old and would have been introduced to Brunei with the more recent migration from China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bai Qi Yi, a great poet of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), described clearly about lion dance in his poetry book entitled “Xi Liang Zhi”. In the book, there were descriptions about people wearing masks of fake lions which were made out of wood with eyes gold in color, silver tooth and furry outfits. Their performances told a story. However, the lion dance was older than the Tang Dynasty.

According to the Chinese, based on their ancient records, the lion was originally from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Lions in Buddhism then were considered as the holy guards of the religion. With the spreading of Buddhism into China, about the time of dynasties of Han, Wei, and Chin, lion dance flourished.

In China, there were elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism which contributed to the lion dance. The lion dance became a spiritual rite to be performed during important occasions and festivals. From the dynasties of Tang, Sung, Yuen, Ming and Ching; and from the kingdom’s palace to the mass people; farming societies and deities’ festivals; the lion dance was one of the main agenda the organizers must have.

According to Wikipedia, there was an old story that a monk had a dream in which there were many sorrows and evils plaguing China. The monk prayed and asked the gods how he could prevent these evils from occurring. The gods told him that a lion would protect them and fight back the evils. The Chinese had never see a lion before, but had heard stories that the lion was the king of all the other animals, so the monk combined all the lucky or magical animals he could think of and so made a lion.

It was told that the lion got too arrogant and told the gods that he was more powerful than all of them combined. The gods became angry, so as a punishment they chopped off his horn which was the source of his power and told him to fight off a thousand evils without his power. The lion could not perform his duties and people died. Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy took pity on the lion and so she tied his horn back on with a red sash and that is why today’s lions sometimes had red sashes tied to them.

Nowadays there are many variations of the lions and the lion dances. Though these variations can be broadly categorised into three styles, Chinese Northern, Chinese Southern, and Taiwanese.

According to another legend, Emperor Wudi of the Wei Dynasty launched an expedition to Hexi in the Gansu Province that captured more than 100,000 Mongolians. The Mongolians were ordered to provide entertainment for the emperor. Some of the Mongol warriors held wood-carved animal heads and wore animal skins while performing a dance. It delighted the emperor and allowed the captives to return home. He named their creation the Northern Wei Auspicious Lion, which eventually spread throughout China.

The origin of the Southern lion dance was said to be during the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Qianlong, during an inspection tour of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, dreamt about the pilgrimage of an auspicious animal with colourful hair. On his return, he ordered his men to re-create the image of the animal he dreamt about. He then ordered his people to use this image at festivals or ceremonies.

The Chinese Northern dance was used as entertainment for the royal imperial court and elsewhere. The northern lion is usually red, orange and yellow (sometimes with green fur for the female lion), shaggy in appearance, with a golden head. The northern dance is acrobatic and may include dangerous stunts.

The Chinese Southern dance is more symbolic. It is usually performed as a ceremony to scare away evil spirits and to summon luck and fortune. The lions had a wider variety of colour. It also has a distinctive head with large eyes, a mirror on the forehead (to scare demons away), and a single horn at center of the head. Lion dance costumes blessed before using them.

The Taiwanese dance integrated with martial arts. In addition to dance steps, the differences between the Taiwanese and the Chinese Southern dances lie in the lion appearance and music, the Taiwanese lion is less elaborate and can be either open-mouth lions and closed-mouth lions.

Nowadays, lion dances in Brunei had to be reserved to perform at houses or malls. Most of the lion dances raised money for their own charity and schools. In the old days, the lion dance troop would go to all residential areas and everyone would tag along till they have gone to all the houses in that area. Chris Chin remembered hanging an ang pow from the third floor apartment and watched excitedly as the lion climbed up to take the ang pow.

The lion dance is now a staple of Brunei’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The lion dance has become a tradition and without it, the New Year would be less festive.

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