He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Man … For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
To begin, I’d like to introduce you to my beautiful friend, Yuting. She and her family are originally from China, and they moved here to the United States when her mom found a new job. Although Yuting and her family now live in America, they do still follow more traditional Chinese customs and practices.
One of the most interesting artifacts from the Chinese culture that she showed me was a photo of the Lion Dance, which is a traditional practice during the Chinese New Year that occurs every year in February. The website, Nations Online, describes the Lion Dance as a common cultural practice that’s based on the ancient Chinese legend of Nian, a gruesome, frightening creature who often delighted in torturing the people of China:
“According to a Chinese legend, a terrible monster (pictured sometimes with features of a lion, unicorn and ox), a really giant, monstrous creature by the name of ‘Nian’, lived in the mountains and would come down at the end of the year, and destroy the fields, crops and animals, and to terrorize people or even kill them all.
The terrified people called the beast Nian (‘nian’ actually is the Chinese word for ‘year’). But by and by, the villagers discovered that the monster was frightened by loud noises, bright lights and the color red.
To prevent the Nian from [wreaking havoc on] the land, the villagers made a fearful model of the animal out of bamboo, paper and cloths; [inside were] two fearless men to animate the image. On New Year’s Eve, they waited for the monster. When it was time, they sent in their own four-legged beast and, accompanied by the furious beating of drums, cymbals and gongs, and the heavy use of firecrackers, they were able to chase the Nian away. For this reason, the Nian dance is performed annually on Chinese New Year’s Eve … thought to be so helpful or auspicious, or both, it is performed on a lot more occasions.”
Admittedly, whenever I think of the Lion Dance, I can’t help but remember that one scene in Mulan where (spoiler alert!) near the end of the film, Mulan is being chased around the Imperial City by Shan Yu, the evil leader of the Huns. Mulan – along with Shang and his men, and aided by a small, red dragon named Mushu and Cri-Kee, her good luck charm – aims to bypass the Huns and gain entrance into the Emperor’s Palace to protect the emperor and his people. They do this by disguising themselves as part of the Chinese New Year celebration under the costume traditionally used in the Lion Dance.
I do sincerely apologize if it appears as if I’ve gone off on a tangent, but that’s the best and, for this generation, the most relevant and relatable example of the Lion Dance I could come up with.
The Lion Dance is usually very lively in nature, and even the traditional costume is bright, colorful and flowing to match the dance itself. My first impression surrounding this artifact was that the Chinese people really know how to party hard.
I only kid, of course.
In fact, when I asked Yuting whether the Chinese were more traditional with their celebrations, she replied that, yes, they do prefer a more classic and time-honored manner of celebrating any holiday, from the city-wide Chinese New Year celebration to smaller, more private occasions and family gatherings. The Chinese people pay attention to and learn from their cultural history, so that it can be kept alive with both present and future generations. She also mentioned that the Chinese New Year is the most important occasion that the Chinese people celebrate and that, in America, this occasion is not as much a cause for celebration as it is in China.
Another impression I got from this dance was that the people of China also recognize the importance of maintaining a strong sense of community, as well as a well-developed cultural identity. This belief could very well be perpetuated by a culture based primarily on the idea of collectivism, in which there is more concern for the people around you, and less attention paid to the individual. In contrast to the collectivist culture in China, the United States maintains a more individualistic point of view, which may explain why Chinese New Year is not as big of a deal here as it is there.