Choy Cheng (Cai Qing)-The Act of Picking the Greens
By William Y.K. Lee
Choy Cheng (Cantonese) or Cai Qing (Mandarin) 採青 is a term often heard during Chinese New Year, but actually applies to anytime the lion sees a red envelope tied to some fresh vegetables. Choy Cheng literally means picking the greens, where Choy means to pick, pluck, collect, grab or gather and Cheng refers to the color green which is in reference to various types of fresh green vegetables/lettuce. The greens are tied together with a Hung Baau/ Hong Bao (紅包)-a red packet/envelope filled with money and also known as li-shi/lei-si or lai si (利是) or money pouch (a pun for profitable business (利市)). They are fed to the lion as an offering with the greens being eaten then expelled by the lion (except for the lai-si) as a form of blessing.
Choy Cheng is a phrase that has other connotations. Originally it was
intended by the anti-Ching government rebels to be a secret phrase meaning
“Step on/Stomp out the Ching-Choy Ching (踩清)” and
Get the Ching (採清). This is
because the two words of both phrases sounded similar in pronunciation.
However, the rebels could not outright say “Choy Ching” when going after the
lettuce, as this would easily be picked up on by the Ching (Mandarin-Qing)
government officials and their spies. So since the word Ching sounds close in
sound to Cheng, the phrase Choy Cheng was adapted. Furthermore, when the lion
grabs the Cheng to eat and expels it back out, it was representative of
grabbing the Ching Government to expel them out of
understand how this culture developed, one must understand that historically
the Ching Dynasty was not Chinese but Manchurians from the north ruling
“Picking the Greens” served several purposes, one was to allow the Hung Mun to gather, identify themselves to other factions, and pass secret messages thru the different types of Cheng Jans (mandarin – qing zhen青陣, green formations) or Hung Baau. Another was to demonstrate martial arts skills. A third was for blessings or exorcisms and the forth was for entertainment purposes like a theatrical play. Nowadays Choy Cheng is used primarily for blessings and entertainment purposes. The act of hanging the greens above the doorway has its origins based on the practice of farmers who had hopes for wealth, happiness and an abundant harvest as they could not afford some of the other more symbolic symbols. This is because first: 祿 (luk-blessings, happiness, prosperity) sounded similar to 綠 (luk-green) and second: the color green is the sign of a lush and healthy crop.
As one can see Chinese love the use of symbolisms, puns, and homonyms known as word play and rebuses. Where one word (usually an object, sometimes a verb of action), is used to represent another word that it sounds similar to in pronunciation to represent one’s wish, desire, noun or something auspicious. Take the word for Vegetable (菜) and Wealth (財) - choy; in this case the Vegetable represents wealth. So when the lion takes the greens, and spits it back out, it is doing two things, it is sharing with the person requesting the lion dance the lion’s good fortune and wishing the person “Wealth/Prosperity Placed Before the Household (sheng cai lin men),” and if the lion tosses the greens thru the doors, it represents, “Prosperity/Wealth Comes Thru the Door.” One can also say that expelling the greens onto a person(s) is symbolic of being "Showered with Wealth/Prosperity."
The different types of chengs are commonly referred to as puzzles by most lion dancers. It is basically an obstacle set up to test a group’s physical skill and/or mental acumen by the person requesting the lion dance. There fore the lion could not actually go after the greens and red packet until successfully playing the array if one so existed. Thus a person will hear the term breaking the green used by lion dancers; this phrase does not mean destroying the obstacle, but rather solving the array put before them. Furthermore it is believed that the harder the jan/zhen (array/formation), the better the luck if the lion can accomplish solving the task at hand. It was also common practice that the harder the puzzle, the greater the reward, both monetarily and for a group’s reputation providing they managed to correctly solve the puzzle. At the same time, if the group failed to properly solve the puzzle, they would be given only a small token lai-si for their efforts. So what constitutes a traditional cheng? They are greens based on traditional Chinese beliefs (such as Taoism, Fung Seui, Buddhism), literature (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West, Canonization of the Gods, Madame White Snake, and various Historical Chronicles), Auspicious Greetings, Words and Motifs that use traditionally accepted props to help the lion convey the reenactment of the theme. The theme is the most important part a lion dancer or person arranging a green array must know to setup or play the formation. These themes always have a story, background and meaning behind them, never are they just randomly or haphazardly generated. So for anyone to better understand what needs to be done, they are required to be very literate in Chinese culture and have a good martial arts background. This way they will understand what each prop may represent in a particular green array, what order to play the props and what to do with the said props as the props employed may vary from person to person, however the props still must be applicable to the theme of the green formation and make sense in some shape way or form.
Another thing that must be taken into account by the arranger of the greens (whether it is the person who requested the lion dance or the lion dance team doing it for the requestor) is the occasion, as a person can not employ just any green array he or she so wishes. This is because there are green arrays that are meant specifically for Chinese new years, business grand openings, specific business industries, weddings, birthday, societal reunions, changing ones luck, religious worship, and so forth.
Below, are two tables, the first is for some of the props used in the creation of an array and some of the things they can come to represent (It must be emphasized that what they actually represent is dependent on the theme of the formation and that it is not something that is etched in stone.) and the second table features some of the auspicious meanings that can be found in these props.
Most often used weapons are:
1) Chinese saber (daan dao)-most often used with or without a wooden bench to represent either a tiger or the white tiger. Sometimes a metaphor for a person.
2) Gwan Dao (a weapon like a saber except attached to a staff of wood or metal) used most often to represent Gwan Yu (deified person from the Three Kingdoms period) or the Green Dragon.
3) Red Tasseled Spear-used as a metaphor for an arrow, a snake’s body, or a person.
4) Double edged sword (gim/jian) – represent a person or deity.
5) Staff – metaphor for snake, monk
Greens that feature martial arts weapons meant two things, first the group would need to demonstrate its skill with the weapon(s) by doing a set from their style of martial arts and second, by tradition if the array was setup by the person requesting the lion dance, the weapon was kept by the martial lion as a gift from the arranger of the greens.
Chengs jans are specifically divided into two groups. A third group is a set of routines that normally don’t feature a Cheng (but have been known to do so on occasion); it is instead an act/routine that the lion goes through. The first group is called Gou Cheng/Gau Qing-High Greens, but sometimes it is also referred to as Tin Cheng/Tien Qing-Heaven’s Green. These are greens placed high in the air. The second is known as dei cheng/di qing-greens that are more or less placed on the ground.
With the first group, the Cheng is placed high in the air, sometimes one story to as many as three stories high. There are several techniques that the Lion may use to grab the Cheng, depending on how high it is placed. The first involves the use of long bamboo poles with a cross bar placed near the top. The head player and sometimes tail player may either wrap themselves around the top side of the pole(s) and have other members of the group anchor the bottom and propel and catapult the dancer upwards. Or the head player may climb on the shoulders of members supporting the pole before scaling up the bamboo pole with the head. The dancer will then stand on the cross bar to dance. More daring groups may have the head player place his stomach on the end of the pole and stretching out in the fashion of a balancing act or they may wrap their legs around the pole so as assume different positions on the pole. This is done not only to entertain the crown but to show the audience their physical skill.
method is the use of a shield or several round table tops, the smallest at
the top and the biggest at the bottom. Each table is lifted and supported by
an X number of performers. The Lion
then climbs up however many are necessary to reach the greens. The last method involves people forming
human pyramids by standing on the shoulder or shoulders of other people
depending on the height of the green. There are of course other ways a lion
dancer may show his physical skill with high greens. According to legend,
Wong Fei Hung known as the Lion King of
The second group of greens is placed on the ground in some sort of pattern or configuration. These formations will have one or several layers of obstacles that the Lion must attempt to solve using either physical skills and/or their mental acumen. The puzzles as they are commonly known, for all intents and purposes of explanation, may be sorted into one or a combination of categories. Some are created using animals (real and mythical) or insects, another may use Chinese literature, a third may be religious based, others are rooted in literacy of Chinese characters and auspicious sayings or motifs with the remaining categories being industry, water and bench greens.
There are also other considerations that go into the use of certain puzzles and how they are solved. There are several aspects as to how, where, when, and why Cheng formations are set up and played. Besides the Hung Mun principle, you have the Fung Seui/Feng Shui (風水) aspect derived from Taoism, martial (kung fu), type of industry, contemporary point of views, the zodiac year and the type of occasion.
As there is an endless array of Chengs, some of which can be setup in a multitude of different ways, this article will try to explain as best as possible some of the greens that are available (purportedly there are as many as 300 or more greens). However, one must keep in mind that solving a green may depend upon clan or village beliefs and what aspect (Hung Mun, Fung Seui, Martial Arts, and Contemporary) is being used.
Also, even the simplest of greens (lettuce and hung baau) the lion never just takes the offering and run. Upon encountering a Cheng Zhen (green formation), the lion will circle the formation if it is at all possible, all the while showing curiosity as it inspects/studies the formation. The lion will then approach the green three times, the first two will be from the sides before finally coming down the center to actually eat and expel the greens. This is done because evil spirits are believed to travel in a straight line. Also, during this time the lion is testing the greens and showing different emotions. These emotions can range from curiosity, cautiousness, anger, surprise (startled), joy, happiness, sleepiness, and drunkenness. The lion also uses stepping patterns known as three stars and seven stars. Furthermore, during the first approach it will smell the green, on the second approach it will taste the greens; before finally eating the greens on the third approach after the lion has deemed it safe to partake. However, if there is an obstacle in the form of a puzzle, the lion will have to break/solve the obstacle before it may partake in the greens.
Below are links to the rest of the article, broken down into various categories of green arrays. As this is also the third revision of this article, some of the more common steps that the lion must do that is common knowledge have been left out in the newer greens that are presented. It is more important for the reader and the lion dancer to understand the theme of the green and its background which has been presented in summary for each array. Also, please be aware that the use of both Cantonese (yale) and mandarin (pin yin) has been used (an older version of mandarin annunciation known as wade-giles is also sometimes used).