There has been an old tradition in China of dancers wearing masks to resemble animals or mythical beasts since antiquity, and performances described in ancient texts such as Shujing where wild beasts and phoenix danced may have been masked dances. In Qin Dynasty sources, dancers performing exorcism rituals were described as wearing bearskin mask, and it was also mentioned in Han Dynasty texts that “mime people” (象人) performed as fish, dragons, and phoenixes. However, lion is not native to China (a species found in Northeast China Panthera youngi had long become extinct), and the Lion Dance therefore has been suggested to have originated outside of China from countries such as India or Persia, and introduced via Central Asia. According to ethnomusicologist Laurence Picken, the Chinese word for lion itself, shi (獅, written as 師 in the early periods), may have been derived from the Persian word šer. The earliest use of the word shizi meaning lion first appeared in Han Dynasty texts and had strong association with Central Asia (an even earlier but obsolete term for lion was suanni (狻麑 or 狻猊), and lions were presented to the Han court by emissaries from Central Asia and the Parthian Empire. Detailed descriptions of Lion Dance appeared during the Tang Dynasty and it was already recognized by writers and poets then as a foreign dance, however, Lion dance may have been recorded in China as early as the third century AD where “lion acts” were referred to by a Three Kingdoms scholar Meng Kang (孟康) in a commentary on Hanshu. In the early periods it had association with Buddhism: it was recorded in a Northern Wei text, Description of Buddhist Temples in Luoyang (洛陽伽藍記), that a parade for a statue of Buddha of a temple was led by a lion to drive away evil spirits. An alternative suggestion is therefore that the dance may have developed from a local tradition that appropriated the Buddhist symbolism of lion.

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