by Sun Jingchen, Luo Xiongyan, Zi Huayun

Steps of the Plateau

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as "the roof of the world", is filled with far-stretching mountains, lofty icy peaks and precipitous deep valleys. The Himalayas, the world's highest peak Everest, the Gangdisi Mountains and the Buddhism sacred "Gangrenboqi" peak are all found here. The mysterious plateau atmosphere helps bring forth people's pious religious belief. They believe in Tibetan Buddhism or polytheism. At different altitude, various geographic areas are formed. There are river valleys suitable for farming, pastureland for grazing, half-farming and half-grazing area and forestry. Different natural environments determine the life styles on the plateau. People do farming, grazing or forestry. Though different in economic life, they have close links as a national unity. The inter-dependence and inter-influence help form a kind of culture combining farming, herding and forestry so that we find the special beauty of the plateau- "Yishunbian" (hand and foot moving in the same way). The Tibetan, Qiang and Yi ethnic groups are ancient tribes on the plateau, whose dance combines perfectly the farming and herding cultures.

"Yishunbian" requires the dancers extend their left (or right) hands and left (or right) feet at the same time. This step was formed under the special circumstances of the plateau where the lack of oxygen is serious and the road is rugged. When a person walks with a heavy load, he or she has to lean to one side, so the foot on that side will provide Support. Naturally, the arm on the same side is similarly swung for balance. Since such a step saves a lot of effort and reduces danger, it is commonly used by people and is gradually elevated to a kind of dance. Another factor leading to the birth of Such a dance is the different clothes and laboring tools used by plateau people. The dances of Dai and Miao nationalities living on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau have the same features.

The "Yishunbian" dances can be divided into five general types:

  • The Waves Type. While dancing, the body and arm swing extensively to the same side, looking like waves in the sea, which are shown in the "Goraxa" of the Tibetan nationality and the "Moonlight Dance of Axi) of the Yi nationality.

  • The Encircling Type. The active move from hip to shoulder leads the actions of the arms, forming a graceful posture, such as the "Salang" of the Qiang nationality.

  • The Arc and Straight Lines Alternating Type. The waist is the major moving part, which engenders arc or straight movements of the body, such as those shown in the "Qiafusuzi" of the Tajik nationality.

  • The Pendulum Type. The waist moves slightly, which is often found in the dance of the Miao nationality. The Miao women like silver ornaments. Besides complicated ones on the head, they also wear necklaces, arm and wrist bracelets, and heavy texture pleated skirts. Though they dance in a gentle way, the shining ornaments and skirts are attractive, thus forming a pendulum type of dance.

  • The S Type. In the well-balanced and steady rhythm, the relaxed waist and soft arms compose a posture like the letter "S", which is frequently seen in the Dai dances. This is due much to Dai people's love for water and peacock and pleated skirt.

The Tibetan folk dances are diversified. People in their daily lives wear the long-sleeve "Chuba", which adds charm to the "Yishunbian" dance. Their pious religious belief enriches the dance with religious colors. Besides the temple dance "Chamo" mentioned before, there are also "Xa", "Goraxa", "Zhoi" and "Raba".

"Xa" (meaning songs and dances) is also known as "Ye" or "Xianzi", with the most typical kind "Batang Xianzi" in Ganzi, Sichuan Province. It is a kind of dance of agricultural areas. In performance, a leader plays the "Biban" (Tibetan-style two-string instrument). Other participants will sing and dance with the music. The melodious music and graceful dance demonstrate fully the advantages of the Tibetans dance. The dance movements are similar with a mural in Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, which depict the patrolling scene of an official named Zhang Yichao. From the dancing Han women, one may understand the cultural exchanges between Han and Tibetan nationalities long ago. (Fig.2-25)

"Goraxa" (meaning singing and dancing in a circle) is popular in Xigaze and Shannan prefectures of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Participants enclose a big circle, singing and dancing being led by one person and proceed clockwise (which is in accordance with the "spinning right" in Tibetan Buddhism). Each type of music has a corresponding dance. When the music is slow, participants sing loudly and walk slowly, raising their hands on the same side and waving. When the music turns quicker, people become aroused and the waves like "Yishunbian" become more obvious.

"Zhoi" (dances), also called "Guozhuang", is prevalent in herding and half-farming, half-herding areas. The dance names, melody and movements vary in different places. For example, in the "Guozhuang" of Zhongdian, Yunnan Province, most songs are about temples and lamas. The "Shanqimu" is sung containing lines like this, "Three layers of mattress are laid on a golden bed, a Big Lama is asked to sit on it". The people's respect for the lama is clearly shown. In the program of "peacock Drinking", the song extols the peacock, but the dancers imitate the hawk. Since the local people look upon both the peacock and the hawk as divine birds, most dance movements of men imitate images of a hawk, which reflects their religious belief.

Many laboring movements are found in the "Zhoi" dance in Xigaze, which is majestic and requires a lot of skills. For instance, "TashihungPo" sings the praises of the Tashihungpo Monastery in Tibet. It reflects a kind of religious belief and assumes the rich flavor of life. In lento, dancers act as rams. In allegros, men begin the highly difficult "moving forward in a lying posture".

The term "Raba" means "roaming artist". In the past, the local residents lived hard lives but they were good at dancing. Led by experienced artists, they organized travelling groups of performers. Through repeated performance, these artists greatly improved their skills. (Fig.2-26)

Ancestors of the Qiang ethnic group were called the Qiang people. They contributed much to primitive farming and animal husbandry. It was the Qiang people who created the farming and husbandry culture Suitable to the plateau. Later, the Qiang people integrated gradually with modern nationalities and their culture was passed down by Tibetan, Yi and Qiang ethnic groups. Few Qiang dances were left, but those that remain relate to the plateau. Of these dances, the "Salang" is the most popular.

"Salang" (meaning to sing and to dance) is a dance form for self-entertainment. It is featured by the circling movements of the body, which represents the charm of both singing and dancing. In the beginning, men and women stand in two lines. They sing a song in the round. After the song, a male dance expert leads others to form a circle. When the rhythm turns quick, and the leader accelerates his steps and alters actions. He treads heavily while continuously crossing his feet or spins from left to right. Men and women like to compete with each other, creating a heated atmosphere. During the climax, the males shout out "Yah-Wei" and the females respond with "Xue-Wei" at an end. Then they change the song and start again. (Fig.2-27)

The Yi ethnic group has many branches. Some still live in extremely cold areas and their dances vary. The "Moonlight Dance of Axi", popular in Lunan and Mile of the Yunnan Province, is a kind of mass dance among Axi and Sani people of the Yi nationality The accompanying instruments include the big sanxian (three-stringed Chinese guitar) and the flute. Most of the music is five-eighth time. Five beats make up a phrase. The first three beats are the major melody, and in the latter two beats, the string is plucked to make out sound of "Chacha", like rhythmic jumping. Dancers are not limited in number, but they must be in pairs. In the first three beats, the dancers move forward, backward or around; while in the latter two beats, they clap their feet or hands in their original places. Their movements, especially of the big sanxian player, have obvious features of the wave-type "Yishunbian".

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