Divine Spirit: Consecration and Blessing of the Chinese Lion

Hoi Gwong, (開光 – M-Kāi Guāng), is a term we hear often as lion dancers but what exactly does it mean? In short, it means to bless or consecrate an item to give it energy and life.

Grandmaster Chan Siew Kee dotting a lion at a Hoi Gwong in Seattle, WA 2013

This could be a lion head, a dragon, a Buddha statue, or even an item like a flag or drum. Amongst the Chinese the term is most often associated with religious items, but for us lion dancers it means so much more. The Hoi Gwong Yee Sik (開光儀式 – M-Kāi Guāng Yí Shì) is the way to give a life force to the lion. The lion is a representation of all the positive forces and energies of our team, group and school. It represents all that the Master and students work hard to achieve.  That is why it is important to bestow the Lion with the life force that makes it more than just papier-mâché and bamboo. More than a puppet, it is a living symbol of all we strive for.

Master Mak Chi Leong bringing life to a lion at his school in Macau, China
Mr. Leong Lik Thong Vice President of the International Dragon & Lion Dance Federation (IDLDF) along with Master Phong Vo (one of the USDLDF founders) dotting a lion in Denver, CO in 2017

So how does one go about consecrating a lion, you ask? Well, that is a very hard question to give a definitive answer to! Every team, every school and every teacher have their own way of performing the ceremony. Some aspects are practiced by all, some aspects are very specific and esoteric. The one aspect they all agree on is the dotting of the lion’s eyes or Dim Jing (點睛 – M-Diǎn Jīng). In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that some folks call the Hoi Gwong Ceremony an Eye Dotting Ceremony. Even amongst the Chinese this is a very common name for this auspicious ritual.

In most cases, the ritual begins with a few items placed on a tray, and the lion dancers seated on the floor, in the lion. Some groups choose to stand beside the lion while the ceremony takes place and then jump in as the drum starts to roll. The tray often contains various items, but most important is something red to use as ink, and a fresh new calligraphy brush. Additionally, a red ribbon called Sun Hong (神紅 – M-Shén Hóng), and a set of decorative paper banners usually having peacock feathers called Gum Fa (金花 – M-Jīn Huā) will also be on the tray. These two specific items are used to signify the lion’s state of having been consecrated. They are also used for any other items that are blessed such as an altar or signboard.

Examples of Gom Fah (金花 - M-Jīn Huā) and Sun Hong (神紅 - M-Shén Hóng)

Traditionally red cinnabar and/or the blood of a rooster’s comb was used to mark the eyes of the lion. Red cinnabar or Jyu Sa (硃砂 – M-Zhū Shā) is considered, in traditional Chinese culture, to bring life, immortality and spiritual enlightenment when used. By dotting a lion, or any object with it, the item may come to life in a spiritual sense.  Nowadays many groups use red ink, red paint, or a combination of a few different items mixed together with items such as ginger and a distilled spirit, like rice wine, to bring their lions to life.

1. Red Cinnabar, 2. Ginger and 3. Distilled Spirit

During the ceremony a special dignitary, or possibly the Master themselves, use the brush and red substance to mark various parts of the lion depending on the traditions of the school. Almost all begin with either the mirror or the eyes, and then proceed to the ears, nose, mouth, horn, body, and sometimes the feet. During this portion, some schools will also recite a poem that is meant to give energy and luck to the lion as it is being blessed. Once this portion is complete, the person in charge of the ceremony will yell Hei Gu! (起鼓 – M-Qǐ Gǔ) which means “start the drum!”. At this point the musicians will begin to play, and the lion will come to life, this denotes the lion’s birth as a living being of auspicious power.

Musicians ready for the signal of "Hei Gu!" to start playing.

Once the drum starts, the lion will awaken slowly, coming to “life” as it takes its first breathes. Upon arising the lion will pay respects as per the traditions of the school. This usually entails bowing before ancestors, before the altar of the school, perhaps to the sifu, or even to the four cardinal directions. After this, the lion is fully awake and ready to do its first act as an auspicious being by “plucking the greens” and performing its first Choy Cheng (採青 – M-Cǎi Qīng). How this is done varies from school to school, but almost always includes a lettuce or some form of greens.

Newly awakened lion performing bow in front of the Hong Wai altar. Macau, China 2019.

Every school and every style have their own ways to awaken their lions, there is no one right or wrong way, only what is right for their tradition.

With the plucking of greens complete, the Lion has been given life and fulfilled his first auspicious duty, it’s time for a final bow and a rest. The lion is now a powerful symbol of the sifu and the school!

Newly awakened lion performing bow in front of the Hong Wai altar. Macau, China 2019.

Editor’s note: Please keep in mind that this is a basic article for informative purposes only. It is not intended to cover in depth all of the symbolism and practices of this deeply meaningful ceremony, nor is it a complete guide or how-to.

By: Ray Petersen – Vice President of Education United States Dragon & Lion Dance Federation (USDLDF)

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