Where the lion dance is the cat’s whiskers

The Tay and Nung people in northern Lang Son Provice perform their traditional lion dance in cat-like masks during Tet and other major celebrations.

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The Tay and Nung people in northern Lang Son Provice perform their traditional lion dance in cat-like masks during Tet and other major celebrations.

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Performing the lion dance wearing cat masks (mua su tu meo) is a long-standing tradition among the Tay and Nung ethnic minority groups living in Cao Loc, Loc Binh, Van Lang, Van Quan, Binh Gia and Trang Dinh districts of Lang Son Province. 

The dance is usually performed on the first and second day of Tet, the Lunar New Year and for major occasions, including the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration.

The Nung call this mythical lion cat the ki lan, which is one of Vietnam’s four holy beasts: the dragon (long) in the east, qilin (lan) in the west, turtle (quy) in the north, and phoenix (phung) in the south. 

The cat masks used by the Nung to depict the ki lan seem to indicate a three-horned creature.

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Each lion-cat dance troupe has 8-16 people, including the head dancer and other members who wear orangutan and monkey masks and wield weapons including a spike and short sword.

Nguyen Son Tung, a Lang Son resident and photographer, said the lion-cat dance was originally unique to the Nung people. The Tay later picked up the custom as the two ethnic groups intermingled.

The dance consists of basic movements and walking, saluting, and paying respect to local shrines and altars. The dance will be adjusted accordingly to the space, location and requirements of each occassion.

The dance itself comprises both basic and complicated movements that are adjusted according to the space, location and requirements of each occasion.

Performers are re-enacting a passage about the origin of the ca-masked lion dance. This activity has many meanings, demonstrating the chivalry of upland people, and is both a symbol of luck and happiness in life.Many families here also invite performance teams to come their house to dance to pray for good luck and peace.

Performers re-enact a passage about the origin of the cat-mask lion dance, which carries several meanings. It demonstrates the chivalry of people in the northern highlands and reflects aspirations for luck and happiness in life.

Many families in the province invite the cat-mask lion dance troupes to perform in front of their houses as part of prayers for good luck and peace.

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The dance aims to dispel bad luck using the fiercing cat’s face is. The fiercer the mask and stronger dance movements the better. According to Tung, it takes more than a week to make a cat-masked lion head.

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The artist collects white clay from the middle of the river, pounds it and soaks it in water till it is smooth and has the right thickness. Then the head is shaped with a mould and let dry. This is then covered with paper mache and painted. Colorful fabric, cotton and feathers are attached to the mask to make up the rest of the lion-cat’s body, including the tail.

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Dance troop performs a martial dance, advancing to the cat-masked lion to tie the piece of red cloth in their mounth to the animal’s mouth. The dance is not difficult to learn, but requires agility and strength to perform acrobatic movements with high jumps or handstands.

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The tying process is called ka hong and is considered a payment for the mythical creature’s work.

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If performed indoors for a family, the dancer will be given lucky money, wine and the red ka hong cloth. The lucky money is mostly a symbolic gesture separate from the actual payment. 

In Hai Yen Commune of Cao Loc district, the traditional dance was included in the content of extracurricular activities at local secondary schools. The dance attracts many young people attention in Van Lang and Binh Gia districts in learning about this dance.

In Hai Yen Commune, Cao Loc District, the traditional dance is part of extracurricular activities in local secondary schools. Many young people in the districts of Van Lang and Binh Gia are also learning the dance.

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The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recognized the lion-cat dance of the Tay and Nung people in Lang Son as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2017.

Photos by Nguyen Son Tung

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