By day, Zhi hen Li is an Accountant here at the New-York Historical Society. But, by night, he’s a lion dancer. The Lion Dance is a Chinese tradition and a vital component of Chinese New Year celebrations. As a lion dancer, Zhi wears intricate and colorful lion costumes and mimic the majestic cat in movement. On February 16, Zhi will be performing two Lion Dances with the Chinatown Community Young Lions here at the New-York Historical Society at noon. The event is free with Museum admission, so come check it out!
“Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the Chinese Lunar New Year’s Parade,” said Zhi. He was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the parade is an annual neighborhood tradition. Although he “desperately wanted to learn Lion Dance,” most community groups didn’t accept American-born Chinese like himself. It wasn’t until 2002, when Zhi was in high school that he joined the Chinatown Community Young Lions.
“Chinese New Year 2003 was my first celebration with the club, so naturally I was ecstatic. After months of practice, I was finally allowed to play the lion head. I was immediately taken by the role. I considered endless combinations of head, mouth, ear and eye movements and contemplated how I could stitch them together to make the lion come alive.” Zhi explained.
The Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in New York City usually include two Lion Dances: on Chinese New Year’s Day and the following Saturday. Zhi was selected for the honor of opening the first procession and closing the second. “This was thrilling because I got to put my own touch on the performance. I gave it my all—using all the moves I’d learned over the last year in practice. The parades themselves were physically exhausting. I danced around nonstop—hustling from store to store, blessing each as we passed.
After 12 years, Zhi is still a proud member of the club. Today, his role has evolved: the student has become the teacher. “I now teach new members of my distinct style of Lion Dance. It’s time for the next generation to take on and continue this tradition.”