A Field Guide to Dancing Lions and Dragons

After moving to NYC, I began seeing lions in the streets. Dancing lions. Lettuce-eating lions. Colorful, big-headed, nimble-footed creatures with long eyelashes and beguiling expressions.

In J’s neighborhood, lions materialize year-round with roving drum corps. They dance and gyrate to help provide auspicious openings for shops and bakeries. That said, prime time for both lion and dragon sightings is really during the Lunar New Year (year 4706 on the Chinese calendar) which starts on February 7 this year.

For a few years, I was seriously confused about what constituted a lion and what constituted a dragon. Thankfully, J is a Kung Fu practitioner, so he was able to clarify the genres for me. Now I feel like I’m a qualified amateur lion-dragon spotter… so of course I’d like to pass on that information on to you, dear reader.

Let’s start with the lions. Lions come in an array of colors, based on symbolic meaning, and one of the first things you’ll notice about lions is that they’re not as long as dragons.

Of course, if you don’t have a dragon on hand for comparison purposes, this may not be a helpful measure, but you can look at the feet. Lions generally have two sets of feet, whereas dragons have many, many more.

Secondarily, there’s context. During the Lunar New Year, lions travel en masse, often down commercial streets, with drummers and other hangers-on. Lions, in other words, always run with a crew.

I’ve learned that lion dances are the community service projects of Kung Fu schools.* Kung Fu students work out lion dance choreography, drumming and theatrics (and of course, they’re strong and acrobatic enough to execute the dances well). Shopkeepers, in turn, offer the lion crews red envelopes filled with donations as thanks for the privilege of hosting those lucky dances.

Finally, there’s one detail that really separates lions from dragons. Just keep an eye out for lettuce. Lions eat lettuce. Whole heads of it. They go through lettuce like Cookie Monster tears through cookies. Dragons, on the other hand, don’t touch the stuff. So the appearance of lettuce is a very reliable lion indicator.

In general, you’ll find that dragon sightings are much more rare. I’ve only seen them during the Lunar New Year celebrations, and they don’t typically hang around shops. That’s just not how they roll.

A dragon will often be seen undulating through the streets chasing a golden pearl. And no, he’ll never catch the pearl. The pearl symbolizes wisdom, and we all know wisdom is about the journey, not the destination.

Dragons are sometimes an auspicious red, sometimes a harvest green, sometimes yellow or gold and silver. And yes, as you might expect, the longer the dragon, the luckier the dragon.

Just remember: Short creature with a posse and a salad frolicking around a business? Lion. Long creature undulating down the street after a pearl? Dragon. Now go forth and spot with confidence! Gung hay fat choy!

*Dragons are often the creations of Kung Fu schools as well, so this isn’t a hard-and-fast difference; You may, indeed, see a dragon with a posse.

Cheers! Miss Ginsu

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