Hainan Tiger Dance: A folk performance to celebrate Spring

By Chen Shumin / HICN / Updated: 16:14,10-January-2022

The Hainan Tiger Dance, combining music, dance and martial arts, is a popular folk performance in the countryside surrounding Sanjiang Town, Meilan District, Haikou. It is believed to have been brought into Hainan Island from China’s Central Plains region during the Ming Dynasty, and was added to the Hainan Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.

In Chinese culture, the tiger is considered the King of Beasts, and its significance can be compared to that of the lion in Western culture. Chinese people have admired the boldness and strength of the tiger from ancient times, and see it as a symbol of power. Especially in traditional agricultural society, the tiger, regarded as one of the four auspicious beasts, is responsible for dispelling and conquering evils.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

The Hainan Tiger Dance, a traditional local cultural custom, is mostly performed during Chinese New Year Festival celebrations in memory of Madame Xian, a historic heroine who played an important role in improving the relationship between Hainan Island and the Chinese mainland and later died on the island. It also celebrates the coming new year with prayers for a good harvest and the safety of people and animals, as well as the prosperity of businesses. Most Tiger Dance performances happen at the annual “Junpo” Festival in the second lunar month.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Generally, a Tiger Dance team consists of twenty to thirty members, including two playing the role of the tiger and others playing roles such as the God and Goddess of the land and guardians. Two dancers working together wear an exquisite, true-to-life tiger costume, and perform all kinds of tiger dance moves, jumping, flipping, and spinning in mid-air to show the awesome nature of the tiger, while the characters of the God and Goddess of the land act in a funny way to entertain the audience. With the cheerful deafening sound of gongs and drums, the guardians perform martial arts to “fight” against or "conquer" the tiger. The whole performance ends with the tiger leaping up to get a red envelope of “lucky money” hung high on a pole.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

In Sanjiang Town, the Tiger Dance also includes a human taming the tiger, differing from the usual dance moves of primarily fighting against or playing with the tiger. This is done to show harmony between humans and nature, a core concept of Chinese traditional culture.

Over the past several hundred years, the Hainan Tiger Dance has retained its original charm and connections to history. Although it is only performed on certain occasions and is not as polished as other performances, it’s definitely worth watching.

There are quite a few teams performing the Tiger Dance nowadays, but few performers have received professional training, and the movements and skills are only taught verbally or demonstrated step by step, as there are no written instructional materials.

In order to keep the Tiger Dance alive and pass it down to future generations, Wang Yacun, a Hainan Tiger Dance performer in Haikou, suggested that more official training classes should be organized to attract more people to learn this performing art, and that those interested in preserving the Tiger Dance should draw on the experiences of those who are working to pass down the Puppet Opera and Qiong (Hainan) Opera to future generations.

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