Thursday, September 9, 2021

Judge Me By My Size Do You?

Some of the most frequently asked questions I get are about the size of Chinese lions so I figured I'd add a post about this since there really isn't a straightforward answer except, "It depends."

As you can see, lion heads come in a variety of sizes. Similar to shoes, the size is usually a single number that roughly correlates to a certain size. However unlike virtually everything else, the smaller the number the larger the lion. Size 1 lions are hardly seen these days and need to be custom ordered. Some manufacturers don't even make them anymore because they cost more to ship, and most teams don't perform with them either because they are heavy and don't fit through some doorways. but back when lion dancing was a show of a Gung Fu studio's strength and skill, the bigger the lion the more impressive the performance.

This makes the largest lions in common usage the size 2, but even size 2 lions are not as common as they used to be. In part this is due to lion dancing becoming more acrobatic where having a smaller, lighter head to perform with allows a team to do things like jump higher and further than if they were using a bulkier costume. In lion dance competitions especially size 3 is very popular, but to me size 2 looks the most proportional for the average adult to use. Size 3 is just a tad small and when I was still performing it felt a bit too cramped to maneuver well underneath.

Size 4 isn't a common size, possibly because the Chinese consider the number 4 to be bad luck. For example Chinese skyscrapers used to "skip" the fourth floor, similar to how American skyscrapers skipped the 13th floor.

Size 5 is a kid's size and while I've heard of sizing going all the way to size 9, anything smaller than a size 5 will be just for display or a toy puppet and not really practical for anyone to perform in.

That was pretty easy to follow so far, but here's where it gets really tricky. There are no standards when it comes to lion building so the same size lion coming from two different factories or makers will probably not match dimensions exactly. And to make things even more confusing some sizes, even from the same maker, will change over the years. So since the trend is to make lions smaller and lighter, if you order a size 2 lion today you might get something a little closer to what we would have considered a size 3 in the 1980s. The saying that size is relative really holds true in the world of lion making.

So to help you navigate, I've compiled a list of sizes that different makers have published. One tricky thing though is that different makers use different measuring systems for their lions. You'll see what I mean below. A majority of this information I originally shared on the old forum, you can still see the post through the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) here. There's still lots of good information there, I kind of wish it were still up and running.

First up, Wan Seng Hang. They're one of the most popular lion makers so chances are if you've been around the lion dance community for any length of time you've seen their handiwork.

In the early 2000s the first version of their website published these measurements. Measured from one corner of the rim where it meets the straight piece around the back and over to the other corner, but doesn't include the straight piece (i.e. just the curved section of a letter "D"), (H=Hoksan, F=Futsan) the second measurement is the length of the straight section.


During the later 2000s they published this image:

I've heard, but haven't verified, that they've changed the sizes again. If you have any info on that please drop a comment below.

Foshan Music Arts Factory
For a long time this was the largest and most popular lion manufacturer. Located in Southern China, they mass-produced lions and dominated the market because others couldn't compete with their price and speed of manufacturing. The factory has closed down, but the Lai family who ran it still makes lions. They haven't published any official size information that I could find, but one of the stores in Los Angeles that I used to frequent (Sincere Imports) carried their lions and had signs with the following sizes next to their displays. 
The only dimension given was a width, which I'm assuming is the width across the widest part of the rim (parallel to the straight piece). Or it could be across the widest part of the head, as in from ear tip to ear tip, or from eyelid to eyelid.


Jonie Uniform
This was a pretty popular store in San Francisco for local teams to buy their lions. They're still in business, but a lot of teams are opting for custom orders or purchasing straight from the makers in Asia now and cutting out the middle man so to speak. I'm not sure of their source, but it could have been the Foshan Music Arts Factory as well, or one of the other places that copied their designs. Measured "through" the rim from the center of the straight piece to the center of the back. (i.e. the long part of the "T" if you put it on top of the "D" shaped rim where the short top of the "T" was on top of the straight piece of the "D"), the second measurement is the length of the straight section. They didn't provide any information about the length of the curve. This info was from their print catalog.


Global Lion Dancer
Global was based on the East Coast of the US and in the early 2000s was one of the first to really utilize the Internet to market their lions. They mass imported lions so were able to offer lower prices than others since they saved on shipping. Unfortunately they've gone out of business. Measurements are made from eye lid to eye lid.


All the way until about 10 years ago or so Emplion was a company with great customer service and offered lions that were a good balance between price and quality. From what I've heard lately the company may have changed hands and their reputation for customer service has suffered. I don't have a lot of information from them about their sizes but I did ask about ordering a size 1 lion from them in 2014 and they responded that "For size 1, we have 58 inches rim and 60 inches rim." I didn't end up ordering from them for other reasons, and didn't ever get any other details about the measurement.

Lo On Kee
In the 1970s and 1980s LOK was one of the main lion craftsmen based in Hong Kong. His lions were quite popular with groups all over the world. Besides the Chinese territories I've seen groups in Japan, all over Europe, and all over the US who have used his lions. In 2011 I got the chance to do a full restoration on a size 2 LOK lion. The total circumference was 76" around. The straight piece in the front was 17.5" and measured straight across the width of the rim was 24" at the widest point and 21" from the center of the straight section to the center of the back of the rim.

So there you have it, my comprehensive guide to lion sizes. As you can see there is a lot of room for variation so if you're planning on building your own lions as long as you're in the ballpark and make the rest of the lion proportional there's no need to get too picky about sticking to an exact measurement.

Good luck and, as always, if you have any questions or comments feel free to drop them below or shoot me an email.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Woohoo, WuDip (蝴蝶--Butterflies)!! or Woohoo, a Redo!!

After a long hiatus, I finally got back into working on a small lion that was meant for my daughter. I started it when she was born and it was supposed to be for her to play and learn with as she grew. Yeah, that didn't happen and she's now a teenager. Oh well, she can hang it on her dorm wall when she gets to college.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand. Although Southern lions are technically all male I wanted some lighter, feminine aspects to reflect her personality as well. She's always loved bugs and insects of all kinds, especially butterflies, so those are one of the many special designs I'm planning to incorporate.

Last weekend I had some time so I worked on the eye sockets, nose and Soi. If you're not familiar with lion terminology, the Soi are the protrusions behind and below the eye sockets where a fish's gills are. In fact, most English translations use the word "gills" for this area but since we know that lions don't have gills (they have a nose to breathe with) I choose to leave the Chinese untranslated when referring to this area.

Since they stick out already, I figured they'd make a great area to put butterflies. So I grabbed some wire, measured, marked, and bent it into the shape of wings and attached them. Voila--butterflies! Yay, so proud of myself!

Except I wasn't. The more I looked at them, the more dissatisfied I became. I felt like I had thrown something together at the end of the day, rushing to get it done rather than taking the time to make something truly special. And I knew I'd have to redo them.

To everyone out there let me offer this advice--never be afraid to redo something even if it's already "finished" or "good enough" if you have the opportunity to make it better. In the long run, taking the time to get rid of these overly simple, cartoonish wings gave me the chance to replace them with something better. Something I could look at and be happy with instead of continually wishing I had done a better job. This applies to all areas of life as well--not just lion building.
Much better, don't you think? I can't wait to put them on!

Aside from being pretty, fluttery things, butterflies symbolize new life and transformation. They are also associated with longevity, immortality, and, when seen in pairs, with marital bliss.

Saturday, November 2, 2019


Since the book came out it's been great to see what an impact it has had on the lion dance community! The number of people who are interested in learning about the lion dance in general is relatively small when compared to other sports and activities, and of those the number who are interested in learning about building lions on their own is even smaller. Then from those, the ones who are really willing to invest the time and effort needed to really learn and understand the art are even less. By making a resource available I hope to increase that number so the art will have an even greater reach and generate even more interest.

Knowing there was a very limited market for the book, I figured only a few people might be interested in it. I also thought most would be in the US. So far Restore the Roar has exceeded my expectations and has been purchased by craftspeople on five of the seven continents (Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America)! I'm not holding much hope out for Antarctica, but I do know a few groups exist in Africa so there may be an opportunity to expand to one more.

The widespread interest in learning this tradition can only be good for ensuring it continues to grow and thrive into the future. It's honestly a pretty great feeling to know I played a small role in this movement.

So far I've seen some pretty great projects come out of it from other people. If you have your own lion restoration or building project, please let me know. I'd love to see what other people are doing and learning about the craft so we can all learn and grow together.

What started out as a childhood interest and a small side project has really grown. Thank you to the many great people who have become a part of it and keep me inspired to continue working and sharing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Great Time to be Alive (for Lion Dance Enthusiasts)!

(originally published January 9, 2014)

In case you couldn't tell by my lack of new blog entries, I've been pretty busy lately with my projects. I did want to make a quick update though to let you know about two great new resources that should have aspiring lion dance artists jumping up and down proclaiming it's a great time to be alive! Never before in history have there been resources like this available for people to learn the artistry side of the lion dance, and to have them in English is really good news for those of us whose native language is not Chinese.
The first is an Amazon Kindle e-book called "Lion Dance Drawing: The First Book on How to Draw the Lion Dance" by fellow lion builder Bambang Edison Soekanto from Indonesia. A real steal for only $10. If you don't have a Kindle, there are readers and Apps available for PC, Mac, Android and IOS. Check it out in the Amazon Store here, and preview some of the things the book teaches on his YouTube feed here.

And check out some of Edison's work on actual lion heads here.

Update! Since this blog post was originally published, the paperback version of this book has also been released. A little pricier than the Kindle edition, but sometimes having an actual print version has its advantages. The same link above will take you to both versions.

The second book coming out just in time for Chinese New Year (January 31, 2014) is the lion head build and restore manual I mentioned a couple of posts ago. After three years it's finally ready to go!
You won't find information like this in print anywhere else in the world, and it would cost many times more than the cost of this book if you wanted to travel to Asia to learn the art. I don't want to turn this blog into a commercial, so just go check it out by clicking here. There's sample pages so you can read for yourself what I've put into it.

Click to read the Foreword:
If you like what you, fill out this interest form to reserve a copy.

So, how am I doing on my other projects? Well, I used the measurements and instructions in the building manual to build a lion frame as a way to check my work and make sure everything was understandable. I plan to make one more frame also based on the manual, but with some customizations and modifications, then paper and paint the both of them together. That build should be extra fun with the features I have in mind, stay tuned!

I haven't had time to take as many pictures as I did for the restoration project, but here's one to give you an idea of what I've been up to:

Until next time, happy new year and be safe as you prepare for lion dancing season!

Feel free to comment below, thanks!

Ace in the Hole

(originally published April 26, 2013)

The other day I was lucky enough to have fellow lion restoration artist Ryan Au and UCLA ACA Lion Dance team member Andy Ta come over for a visit after dinner. On their previous visit we were able to spend a couple of hours talking about the art of lion building, discussing techniques and sharing issues. Ryan blogged about it on his own Lionblogs website. Check it out and show him some love.

This time around we were getting together for the sole purpose of celebrating the completion of Ryan's latest project, the restoration of a Liu Bei lion named Ace for the Southern Young Tigers, based at UC Irvine. Being a full-time student, it's taken Ryan several years to complete the job which was a full restoration similar to the project I was working on when I started this blog. He needed to strip the old lion down, repair the frame and build it all back up again. His work is all documented on his website so I won't repeat it here. What I do want to do here is take a closer look at some of the features Ryan built into Ace and give you some food for thought as you consider how you want your own lions to look.

Click any picture for a larger version.
The first thing I noticed was Ace was super shiny. There are many different finishing products you can use after you paint a lion and the level of glossiness is a personal preference issue. It's best to experiment with products from different companies and even different finishes from the same company to see which will give you the results you want. I really like the hihg-gloss finish that makes the painting seem all the more bold and brilliant.

From this side view you can also see that while most of the lion's main hair is traditional bristle, the lower eye lashes under the eye are rabbit fur instead. By using a type of fur with a shorter pile not as much of the painting patterns get hidden underneath. It also gives the lion's look a bit of variety to keep things interesting.

Moving back along Ace's side we come to the soy are and find a double soy each with it's own shape of fins and a red side ball. It's different than the double soy Lo On Kee made so it's interesting to see how different lion makers build the same features in different ways. You can also see the metal discs glued on and incorporated into the painting pattern. Many times these discs are glued on haphazardly with no rhyme or reason so it's nice to see some thought put into this. Ryan says there are over 200 discs on Ace. They're slightly smaller than normal which allows them to blend into the pattern better than large ones which tend to stick out and call attention to themselves. I would've liked to have seen pompoms attached to the triangular fins of the inner soy as well, but costs can be prohibitive and it's a minor thing.
Taking a closer look at Ace's ear you can see that instead of leaving the rabbit fur strips plain Ryan added a layer of gold trim. The thicker, 1/2" gimp trim really makes the gold shimmer and creates a good transition border between the fur and the painting.
I really like the colors on Ace's hero balls (pompoms), they pull from the colors used on the painting and are a deep rich color that photos just don't do justice to. You'll have to see them up close in person to really appreciate them. Ryan also did a great job on the many background blends, orange, pink and green ones are visible here.

Here's a good shot of Andy and Ryan demonstrating stances and movements with the lions. Ace is sporting a really long silky white beard. In traditional lion design the color and length of the beard indicates the age and maturity of the lion. In this case it's very fitting for a Liu Bei lion to have a beard showing his age and wisdom as the first emperor of China.

Andy has his own lion project going on as well so next year I want to see three lions in this picture!

Two More Mouths to Feed

(originally published March 14, 2013)

Well, it's been almost a month and I haven't made any progress on the frames I mentioned in my last blog post, but I did make the mouths for them just so I could report some progress. The mouth is actually a pretty easy part to make and only requires an hour or so. It is a fun area to work on though because it requires a little more skill and challenge than just binding bamboo together.

You get to feel like a lumberjack splitting wood! Well, maybe not quite, but you do start with a strip of bamboo twice the width of a standard framing strip and end up splitting each end into two legs. This makes the mouth base a unified piece while allowing the shape to be more complex than it otherwise could be. One set of legs gets turned into the main curve of the mouth shape and the other set becomes the "wings" on either side.

And you get to play with fire! Knives and fire and building lions?!? Yay! Can this project have any more of my favorite things? (Note: please use all of the aforementioned things responsibly, I am not liable for any injuries if you try this at home.) Getting the right angle for the corner of the mouth requires softening up the bamboo to make it pliable enough to bend like that. Heating it up with a small candle flame is the perfect solution to do just that. Even with the use of heat, bend it slowly and carefully being sure not to break the bamboo or else the whole piece will be ruined. Also be sure to keep the piece moving around when bringing it close to the flame to keep it from catching on fire. A little scorching is normal and won't affect the strength of the corner too much.

Add a few more pieces, then wrap the corners with rattan, and voila! There you have a brand new mouth, all ready for papering, painting and decorating. This probably feels like those cooking shows that show you all of the ingredients and then pull a fully-cooked dish out of the oven. I had planned on photographing each step but then I got caught up in the building process and forgot all about it. Next thing you know I'm looking at two fully completed mouths and only have pictures of the beginning steps of one of them. Sorry about that. Hopefully it's enough for you to understand the process and gives you a good idea for how to proceed with your own project.

Thanks for tuning in, if you're interested in more detailed instructions, including a full set of measurements and illustrated diagrams, check out the soon-to-be-released Lion Construction Manual! I'm working hard to get it done by Chinese New Year, 2014 (January 31) and building these two little lions at the same time. Wish me luck!

Are you working on a lion or dragon project of your own? I'd love to talk shop and see what others are doing, drop me a comment below and let me know what you're up to, thanks!

Back in a Bind Again

(originally published February 26, 2013)

The lion dance is in my blood so even though I'm on sabbatical from performing I've still got a lot of projects to keep me busy and involved in the community. Since I am a family man as well, building lions for my kids is the perfect way to combine two of the most important things in my life. Unfortunately having kids leaves little time for lion building so even though I plan the projects out, actually getting them done is a really long process with huge gaps of time interrupting progress on them.

For instance, my first son was born almost 10 years ago and it took me over 2 years to build his lion. You can read more about it and see some close-up shots here.

By the time I finished that lion it was almost time for my daughter to be born and I started on her lion. And what you see here is still how it looks today. That's seven years worth of work you're looking at, baby.

Fast forward a few more years and number 2 son was on his way into the world. I was working on the Lo On Kee restoration at the time so I didn't actually start building his before birth like the other kids', but I did buy some supplies and start to plan it out. That was a year and a half ago and what you see over there is how far I've gotten since finishing the restoration about a year ago. Most of that amazing progress has happened in the past few days.

So now that I've cleared some other projects off of my schedule I'm ready to buckle down and start working on these two frames again! It feels good to dust off the work bench and start bending and binding again. As with my first son's lion you can see I'm using aluminum for the base and main framing sections of the lion. Kids aren't exactly known for being careful with their things so I figured some extra strong material was in order for their lions. What I learn about using different materials for their frames can be applied to building stronger and better full-sized lions as well.

The reverse is also true, what I learned restoring the Lo On Kee lion has helped me advance in skill and understanding and will definitely come in handy with these two builds. My plan is to start to get the ball rolling but still keep a realistic time frame considering my other obligations. Getting the frames done by the end of the year would be great and hopefully not too lofty of a goal. I'll keep my progress posted here, keep checking back if you're interested, thanks!

Let me know what you think by commenting below, I appreciate it!