Introduction To Hung Sheng

Hung Sheng Lion Dance Theater

Grand performance halls and gilded theaters are not the best place to go in Taiwan to see performing arts that really have a living and breathing force of their own. For that you have to check out the temples and shrines. You'll find everything there, including traditional Chinese opera, folk-art troupes, one-man shin-song acts, storytellers, jugglers, and more. There is no better opportunity than a traditional temple fair marking some special religious occasion for the work-a-day masses to put aside their cares for a time and just relax. And among the many types of performance at such fairs, there's nothing more impressive than the lion dance, with its mind-boggling combination of martial arts prowess and acrobatic daring. In Taiwan, the undisputed kings of the lion dance are the Hung Sheng Lion Dance Theater.

Hung Sheng was founded in 1988 by a group of men with a special devotion to martial arts and the lion dance, two pursuits that require tremendous physical ability. A lion dancer must undergo rigorous martial arts training to handle the lion head and put on a proper display of power and artistry.

The group's director, Cheng Yuan-zong, began training very early in Chinese boxing and joined a lion dance troupe at the age of 12, where he learned to play the drums and gongs and developed fine lion dancing skills. At age 18 he helped his troupe master repair the group's lion, thus picking up a skill that has very nearly passed out of existence. When Hung Sheng Lion Dance Theater was founded, Cheng and the other members made the lion head and all the other accoutrements stitch by stitch in a painstaking labor of love that kept them up to all hours of the night.

Thanks in no small measure to Cheng's ability to combine mastery of traditional lion dancing with a spirit of innovation, Hung Sheng won the Ministry of Education's Cultural Heritage Award for folk art preservation just tow years after the group's founding. In no time, Hung Sheng became highly sought after for appearances throughout Taiwan, and was often invited to perform overseas.

Lion dancers provide festivity and an auspicious note on traditional holidays, and when the Hung Sheng lion dancers make an appearance at any venue, be it a big national event or just a regular temple fair, audiences are always captivated by the cavorting lions as they nip at each other and act alternately surprised, puzzled, charmed, and frightened by everything in their immediate environment.

But there's more than mere cuteness on offer, for a first-rate lion must be counted on to negotiate a difficult climb to a plate of good-luck vegetables or perhaps a money-filled red envelope. Posts of varying heights are planted in the ground, and the lion's treacherous task in to jump from the top of one post to another, performing various acrobatic feats in order to reach the good-luck plate and “grab the green.” This performance requires perfect coordination between the two lion dancers, not to mention superb acrobatic skills.
The highlight of any lion dance is the “flying lion” performance, in which five lions (red, orange, green, blue, and gold) all appear together. During the performance, one of the lions suddenly vaults high into the air atop a long pole. This thick never fails to elicit a gasp of astonishment and delight from the crowd.

In 1996, Hung Sheng made a huge lion weighing almost 120 kilos and measuring some 18 feet in height and 28 feet in length. It takes a dozen sturdy men to lift this imposing creature, the largest dancing lion in the world.
To ensure the group's long-term success, Cheng has added a lot of innovative new wrinkles to the group's performances. The gong and drum team, for example, usually plays only a supporting role at temple fairs, but Cheng has arranged a number in which this team is the main attraction. Brawny men best on ten large drums arranged in a circle, the tempo always quick, frequently changing. At times they bang away with one band, while at others they go to two bands and double the thunder. And their loud yells add to the power of their performance. This has become one of the group's most important numbers.

In August 2001, Hung Sheng took part in an outdoor arts festival at Lincoln Center in New York, where they arranged a medley of traditional folk performances into a show called ”Temple fair.” In addition to the already-famous lion dance and the drum performance, the Lincoln Center event also included a routine involving giant puppets representing General Hsieh and General Fan (qi ye and ba ye), and an intriguing “eight generals” number in which performers which colorful theatrical masks painted onto their faces move slowly, rhythmically, and powerfully through moves that are at once both dance and martial movement. This performance showed American viewers the role that the eight generals play at temple fairs in Taiwan, where they are summoned forth to drive away evil and protect the deities.

Another innovation on a traditional theme is Cheng's “A Night Tour of the Dragon Palace,” in which dancers wearing black clothes with orange-fluorescent paint swoop down onto a stage illuminated by black light. To the audience, it appears as though a huge dragon is flying through the air.
Cheng's dozen or so troupe members are all graduates of Hsinpu Junior High School in the Taipei suburb of Panchiao. Their average age is 21, and all have been through rigorous training. Every single one is a big fan of the lion dance, which is why they all opted to come back to Cheng's troupe after they completed their military service. Hung Sheng's fame in recent years has kept invitations rolling in for all sorts of appearances throughout Taiwan. Because the performances are very up-tempo, Hung Sheng is often asked to be part of the opening ceremonies at various events.

Temple fairs are about more than just religion. They are also magnets for the arts and commerce alike, attracting performance troupes and hordes of vendors from near and far. To give overseas audiences a complete feel for what a temple fair is all about, Cheng complemented the performances with the sorts of stalls you find at a temple fair here, selling arts and craft item, including Aboriginal weaving, paper cutting, rush mats, traditional candies, and the like.

Cheng's creative new ideas have propelled the lion dance beyond the temple fair and onto the international stage. Hung Sheng's appearances include: dozens of events around Taiwan as part of “An Evening of Chinese Folk Art” (organized by the Council for Cultural Affairs); the National Festival of Culture and Arts; the 1996 Taipei International Percussion Convention; the 1998 Children's Art Festival in the International Community of Hsinkang Township, Chiayi; the 1998 Nanying International Folk Art Festival; the Asia-Pacific Drum Festival; etc. In addition to these domestic events, Hung Sheng has also traveled overseas to perform in Japan, Germany, and many places in the United States.

Thanks to the creative vigor of the Hung Sheng Lion Dance Theater, a drowsy lion has awoken, and is roaring its assurance that a traditional folk art that seemed like it might be on the way out, is in fact here to stay.

Add:NO.7-4, Alley3, Lane171, Chu Kung Rd, Pan-Chiao City, Taipei County, Taiwan, R.O.C.