Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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The Year of the Sheep

March 06, 2015 / The Year of the Sheep

Or the goat or ram, depending on which you like.  It turns out that the Chinese word for the zodiacal animal of this year can mean any of these, although “sheep” is especially good since apparently the word in Chinese looks as if it has a pair of curvy sheepish horns.

In spite of bone-numbing cold, on March first I took the subway into Boston and walked over to Chinatown.   Chinese came to Boston in the 1870’s, many by way of arrival in California.  Most of those early immigrants were from southern China.  Our Chinatown is the third largest in the country, although its actual Chinese population is shrinking due to “development” which is encroaching on its territory with gigantic high-rise, expensive apartments.  But there is still a network of small streets lined with businesses the names of which I cannot read. 


I knew right away where lion dances were happening because I could hear the snapping and popping of strings of firecrackers, coming from several directions.  I chose a street and hurried down it toward the source of one sound.   Yes!  There in front of a bakery was a small crowd seen through the smoke of the fireworks, gathered around a fine red-and-gold lion!  


What a handsome lion!  His gigantic head, with its bulging fierce eyes and wide mouth, was just now bending toward the offering of lettuce and orange, on the stool at the entrance to the bakery.  With a flourish he inspected the food, then appeared to snatch it up with his big tongue.  A few seconds later the orange was flung into the air, to be caught by some lucky bystander, and the lettuce, now seemingly shredded by his sharp teeth, was strewn on the ground, at least what was left after he chewed it up.  A red envelop was there too, but I didn’t see what became of it. 

Red-and-Gold Lion bowed to the smiling shopkeeper (whose business was now assured of luck and prosperity for the coming year), and I observed a discreet changing of the person under the hinder lion parts—one man slid out and a new one in. 


Now the lion entourage began to move, accompanied by vigorous music of gong, cymbals and drum.  Men with long red poles came ahead of him, marking out a safe passage.   At the next business where his presence was requested, another food and red envelop offering was laid out, this time on a chair. 

As the music played and the firecrackers burst, scattering red paper everywhere, the lion bobbed and wove and rolled his eyes and clacked his tongue, his beautiful red-and-gold “fur” undulating and swishing.   A Buddha wearing a large mask and carrying a big bamboo fan teased the lion with the fan, encouraging him to prance and jump in the dance.   After his dance, again the lion closely inspected the offerings and, finding them acceptable, ate them and tossed them into the air, one of his attendants took the envelop, and there was a swift exchange of under-the-costume personnel.  Clang!  Clang!  Bong!  Bong!  Clashhh!  Clashhh!


This lion had gathered quite a crowd by the time he got to a restaurant at the end of the street, where not only did he “eat” the offering of auspicious food (and the red envelop), but following his dance and meal, he went right into the restaurant where he expertly terrified and awed its patrons and gratified the kitchen crew. 

By this time I discovered that there were some other lions and attendants in the next street, these a pair, one white and one black.  I switched my allegiance and went to watch them.   Amidst the noise and general mild and cheerful mayhem I could see that they were doing much the same as Red-and-Gold Lion, moving from business to business, dancing and cavorting at the urging of a Buddha, and consuming delicious and auspicious meals of lettuce and orange, leaving sidewalks strewn with slippery half-”eaten” lettuce leaves and red firecracker papers.  In fact, lions were everywhere in the streets of Chinatown this cold afternoon!


The New Year lions, their dances and the customs that accompany them may go back a thousand years.   Our lions in Boston are Southern China lions, and their behavior and appearance is different from those in the North.  Other Asian countries also celebrate lion dances, and if you are an expert you can identify their different costumes and behaviors.  

Here in Boston each lion is animated and accompanied by students from various martial arts schools.  The complex and unwieldy costumes, all of which are made in small specialty shops in a few places in China, must be imported from there and can cost close to $1000 (more if you order paws and special pants).  The red envelops, containing donations from the businesses visited by each lion, go to support these schools and other Chinatown enterprises.  

Wearing a lion costume and doing the lion’s dance is not a simple matter.   The person in the front may have to stand on the shoulders of the person in the back in order to make the lion appear to rear up.  The front person must animate the eyes, ears, and tongue.  Some lions have tails which are operated by the person in the back.  Steps are practiced and coordinated and there are different styles of dances, some of them extremely athletic. 

Different colors of lions are different ages.  The black and white pair I saw represented the youngest and oldest lions, respectively.   Other colors stand for characteristics—green and black is for fierceness, red and black are courage, and gold is for liveliness and wisdom.


In the modest crowds following the lions about on Sunday, I saw young families, locals and outsiders like me with cameras, and sharp-eyed older men, watching the proceedings with what seemed to be a judgmental gaze.  Perhaps they were evaluating their students, how they conducted themselves as lions, how they clashed the cymbals, struck the big drum, beat the gong. 

I guess these days in America it is not so common any longer to speak of us as a melting pot, but rather perhaps as a mosaic, in which each contributing culture adds something beautiful to the picture.   I am grateful for the dancing lions in Chinatown, and I wish them an auspicious, prosperous and happy Year of the Sheep/Goat/Ram, and I hope I have the same.  You too.

The Year of the Sheep


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