Maybe you often hear about Chinese New Year or Tahun Baru imlek, the Chinese community in Indonesia always celebrates Imlek every year. By the way, do you know that there is one show which is always enlivening the Chinese New Year in Indonesia? Yup! The answer is Barongsai. The cheap entertainment that emerged and became one of the traditional Chinese arts is indeed enough to attract people's attention in every street in Indonesia during when Chinese New Year Celebration. I have an experience while watching a Barongsai performance in A Chinese Culture Week in Singkawang City, I still remember when The noise of people passing along with friends and family in the location, I saw children very enthusiastic watching the Barongsai Performance. Some children are carried on their shoulders so they can see clearly. I really like the costumes worn by players which are very colorful and I really enjoyed that show and I found that, Even though this show is held every year during the Chinese New Year in many places in Indonesia, however, not many Indonesian people know about the history of the Barongsai performance itself.
Lion dance (舞狮: wǔshī) or in Indonesia known as the Barongsai has a history of thousands of years. The first record of this dance can be traced during the Qin Dynasty (秦朝: Qíncháo) around the third century BC.[footnoteRef:1] According to Chinese belief, the lion is a symbol of happiness, wisdom, power, and superiority. Barongsai is believed to be a show that can bring good fortune,[footnoteRef:2] so it is generally held at various important events such as opening restaurants and building temples, and of course, Barongsai is one of the most important traditions at Chinese New Year celebrations.[footnoteRef:3] [1: “Chinese New Year Celebration in Indonesia”, Expat Web Site, http://www.expat.or.id/info/chinesenewyear.html (Accessed on January 19th, 2019)] [2: Rodgers, Greg. “Chinese Lion dance or Dragon dance?” Trip savvy, https://www.tripsavvy.com/chinese-lion-dance-or-dragon-dance-1458310 (Accessed on January 19th, 2019)] [3: https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/special-report/chinese-new-year/new-year-lion-dance.htm (Accessed on January 19th, 2019)]
Initially, Barongsai performances were banned by the new Order’s regime because it was considered as 'provocative' and 'an affront to Indonesian nationalism. But since the reign of former Indonesian President Abdurahman Wahid, Chinese society was given the freedom to celebrate Chinese New Year and play a Barongsai performance. Judging from history, the existence of this traditional dance is said to have existed for thousands of years ago, precisely in the era of the Qin Dynasty, which was around the 3rd century BC. As time went on, this art continued to grow and became popular in the era of the Southern-North Dynasty or Nan Bei, which is around the year 420 - 589 AD[footnoteRef:4] [4: ,” Lion Dance”, China.org.cn, http://china.org.cn/english/features/SpringFestival/200004.htm (Accessed on January 19th, 2019)]
A brief history of Barongsai in Indonesia
Then, when is the first appearance of Barongsai in Indonesia? According to history, it is estimated that Barongsai entered Indonesia in the 17th century when the South Chinese people arrived. Barongsai in Indonesia experienced its “booming” era when the era of the Chinese Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan group still existed. Every Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan Chinese association in various regions of Indonesia is almost certain to have a Barongsai association. The development of the Barongsai then stopped in 1965 precisely after the eruption of the G30S/PKI Movement. Because of the political situation at that time, all kinds of Chinese culture in Indonesia were silenced. the Barongsai performances were prohibited from staging and The Barongsai is destroyed and may not be played again.[footnoteRef:5] But, Since the reform era in 1998, Barongsai became commonly seen everywhere. Changes in the political situation that occurred in Indonesia after that year revived Barongsai and other Chinese cultures in this country. Many lion dance associations have resurfaced. Unlike the old days, now not only Chinese youth play Barongsai, but there are also many indigenous Indonesian youth who participate to play the Barongsai dance, and Because the attributes were destroyed in 1965, now it must be made new. In the past, a lion's head was made from a bamboo frame, now a lion's head is made of fiberglass. The color of the lion dance was made more lively and the flickering electric lights were used as decoration. Nowadays, Indonesians however, have developed their own style of lion dances. Barongsai in Indonesia has different forms that are distinct to the local cultures in Indonesia, For example, Reog ponorogo from East Java. [5: Suryadinata, Leo. (2008). Ethnic Chinese in Contemporary Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.]
According to Chinese people's beliefs, Barongsai performances are not only for artistic purposes but also have the meaning to expel bad things that might happen. That's why the Barongsai performance is always there during the Chinese New Year celebration so the evil spirits stay away. Colorful costumes also have their own meaning, such as green as a symbol of abundant harvest, yellow symbolizes fertility and soil, red means joy, and golden and silver colors that symbolize the festivity of a celebration.
If we observed, there is one very distinctive movement that can certainly be seen during the Barongsai performance, which is eating an envelope filled with money. This term is called 'Lay See' and will take place when half of the entire dance is played. When examined more deeply, the envelope is usually plastered with watercress vegetables which become a symbol as a gift for the Lion.
The movements and dances performed by the players are very beautiful and demand the skills; balance and trust of each participant because the lion dance is synonymous with acrobatic art which requires them to jump, dance, and climb. Leg strength is also very important because the player must be agile and full of energy to complete all the attractions until the wasp of the gong and drum is finished.
Sometimes, Barongsai players also have special provisions in the field of martial arts, such as wushu because these movements strongly support their actions when performing various attractions, both in narrow terrain, rolling on the floor, and when having to climb and jumping over bollards high.[footnoteRef:6] Sometimes, the lion's eyes flickered and continued to dance so beautifully. The head-to-tail waddle with movements that are so neat. Accompanied by the drumming of blaring music, this traditional Chinese art was used as an alternative for the wider community during Chinese New Year celebrations.[footnoteRef:7] [6: Noel, Foo. “Ten Talking points about lion dance”, The Star Online, https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/focus/2016/02/06/10-talking-points-about-lion-dance-key-attributes-of-a-muchloved-festive-tradition/ (accessed January 20, 2019).] [7: “Lion Dance 舞狮”, Chinatownology, http://www.chinatownology.com/lion_dance.html (accessed January 20, 2019)]
What Barongsai symbolize
In Chinese culture, the lion (狮子) symbolizes power, wisdom, and superiority. People perform Barongsai at Chinese festivals or big occasions to bring good fortune and chase away evil spirits. The lion dance is one of the most important traditions at Chinese New Year. It is performed to bring prosperity and good luck for the upcoming year. [footnoteRef:8]The lion dance is also a way to create a festive atmosphere and bring happiness. Performed in a lion costume, accompanied by the music of beating drums, clashing cymbals, and resounding gongs, lion dances imitate a lion's various movements or demonstrate martial arts agility, depending on the style. One of the main movements of the Barongsai dance is the lion movement consuming the money-filled envelope called 'Lay See'. On top of the envelope is usually plastered with watercress vegetables that symbolize the gift for the Lion.[footnoteRef:9] The process of eating 'Lay See' lasts about half of the entire Lion dance. In front of Barong dancers, there is also usually another dancer who wears a mask and carries a fan. This figure is called the Buddha. His job is to herd the Lion Barong to the place where the envelope containing money is stored. [8: “Lion Dance,” NationsOnline.org, https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/lion_dance.htm (accessed January 20, 2019).] [9: About Chinese New Year Red Envelopes (Lai See Or Hong Bao Packets), La Jolla Mom, https://lajollamom.com/chinese-year-red-envelopes/ (accessed January 20, 2019)]
In my opinion, the Barongsai performance has an important meaning for the Chinese community in Indonesia. This is a symbol of inter-ethnic tolerance and also proof of Chinese acculturation in Indonesia. Chinese ethnicity has become an important part of Indonesian society. They already existed from the Dutch era, and referring to history, they have been here for a long time and have become part of our daily lives as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia. Barongsai's performance also invites us all to strengthen the brotherhood, friendship, and kinship, and unite for the better progress of Indonesia. Barongsai Performance presents entertainment for all people. All can be free to enjoy Chinese New Year celebrations without being limited by the differences around us. Chinese New Year has always been a momentum to echo inter-ethnic unity and tolerance throughout Indonesia. Positive here. That momentum never changes. The positive message is always carried, it depends on how we interpret it.