May 30, 2012

Recently this picture showed up online in a group I participate in on Facebook and it sparked a lively little debate. The original poster was wondering who (which historical general, if any) the lion represented and the answer, according to the lion maker, is Zhang Fei. This made a few people pause a bit because there is a lot of blue and not so much green used on the lion. What does that matter, you might ask. As I mentioned in a previous post, the colors of traditional lions are determined by the colors of the face paint of that general as portrayed in the Cantonese opera. For Zhang Fei this has always been black and white (and/or gray) with black hair and beard. Touches of green are often used as accents.

Here are some examples (all were found online, none of these pictures were taken by me):

Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example
Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example
Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example

As you can see from the other pictures above there is a lot of room for variation even when using the original color scheme. So without a compelling reason to deviate from the tradition, it would be unnecessary to change the overall color pallette for traditional lions. There is even precedent on the Zhang Fei lions to use blue (usually on the eyelids) sparingly as a supporting color, but not a main color.

Although the first picture above is what sparked the debate, it really isn’t just about that lion.

At the heart of the debate are questions about the evolution of traditions and the validity of artistic license. Art forms are constantly changing and subject to reinterpretation according to the visions of individual artists. At the same time if there are no overarching guidelines then the results are often unrecognizable bastardizations of the originals. How many times have we sat through a horrible remake of a classic film that completely missed the mark of the original?

So what place do ancient traditions play in modern society? How do we as artists express our individuality while still remaining true to the customs that have been handed down through the generations? Can we disregard the teachings of our lineage and claim artistic differences? Are modern aesthetics more important than historical precedents? These are not easy questions to answer and there are no clear cut lines dividing the camps.

For me, as a performing artist, there are at least two major criteria I would use before changing a standing tradition. 1) Is there a compelling reason for the tradition that would be violated by the change? And 2) Would the intended audience still understand what is being conveyed?

Like it or not, traditions started and became engrained for a reason; sometimes a good reason, sometimes a more questionable one. Arbitrary, superstitious and no longer relevant practices can be disregarded as we pare an art form down to its essentials. For example the Chinese tradition that says women shouldn’t bathe for a week after giving birth was most likely started at a time when river water posed a greater threat of parasites and other illnesses than not bathing. We’ve luckily advanced as a society to where we can end this practice. We always want to make sure we aren’t just blindly holding onto the past without basis. However we also have to recognize that there might be a reason we are not aware of. We need to do our due diligence and consult with others who can give guidance on this rather than just trusting our own, often limited, judgment.

As for the second criterion, the whole reason we perform is not for ourselves but for the audience, whether that’s a merchant that’s hired our team to bless their business, a couple celebrating their marriage, or the viewers at an exhibition performance. An actor could give the most inspired performance in the history of the stage, but if there is a disconnect with the audience it will all be in vain. So as performers we want to make sure every aspect of our presentation gets our intended message across. In terms of the lion dance, there are several things that a knowledgeable audience would expect to see. As a specific example, let’s apply these to the lion pictured above. What are the reasons for the traditional colors of Zhang Fei? Black hair and beard to signify his youth, and black markings on his face to portray his dark complexion. In the Cantonese Opera, each of the Five Tiger Generals was assigned his own color(s) to differentiate him from other characters and make him consistently and easily recognizable even among different acting troops and from play to play. Every actor/troop could apply the makeup in their own style, but all used the same color schemes. Major deviations were liable to cause confusion among an often illiterate audience who relied on visual cues to follow the action.

But is this outdated? Would a modern audience know enough to recognize Zhang Fei in a slightly different color scheme? Given the right context, i.e. sitting next to the other 4 Tiger Generals, an informed audience would probably be able to figure out who was who. Also, given that many people don’t know enough about the lions or the generals they represent beyond the main three (Liu Bei, Guan Gung and Zhang Fei) by process of elimination most would probably guess that this was Zhang Fei anyway. But if it appears by itself and even people in the know need to ask who it is supposed to represent, it might indicate that the artist should have stuck a little closer to tradition.

So the jury is still out. Personally I really like this lion. It has the fierce look of a traditional general and it has touches that make it stand out from the usual slew of lions. But whether or not I would consider it a good representation of Zhang Fei is debatable.

As a final bit of food for thought, here is a picture of an opera troop portraying Zhang Fei with a blue headdress:

Want to weigh in on the issue? Feel free to comment below or drop me an email:, I’d love to hear your thoughts!