Rain of Flowers on the Silk Road
INTRODUCTION TO CHINESE DANCE
- by William Lau M.F.A. Dance
courtesy of , June 1999, Volume 2, Issue 2
Chinese dance activity can be found everywhere in the Chinese community in Canada. Whether a celebration or a festival, an anniversary or a special event, Chinese dance is a regular feature, and often a necessary component in any program agenda.
It is very difficult to trace back to the time when dance began in China. One of the authorities in Chinese Dance study, YOU Hui-hai gives an interpretation of how dance evolved in Chinese civilization: "The Dance has been very important in the life of people of China, including her Han majority, since time immemorial." As with other early peoples, in China, dance began as part of magic rites with primitive hunters mimicking totemic or other animals. This is shown by decorative designs on pottery from the Neolithic age. Dance is referred to in inscriptions on the shoulder blade and tortoise shell "Oracle bones", China's first written records, which date from the Shang dynasty (16th-11th centuries B.C.)" (You, 1984:50). According to Professor Liu you-lan, Chinese dance specialist and professor of Chinese folk dances at the Beijing Dance Academy in China, Chinese dance can be divided into two major styles: first, "Minjian WuDao" which means Folk Dance and second, "Gudian WuDao" which means Classical Dance. Since China has about fifty-six different nationality groups including the Han, one can imagine the rich cultural mosaic and the diversity of dance styles that exists in this country.
Since the Han people are dispersed in every part of China, different parts of the country may have dance characteristics unique to that particular region. In the northern part, people call their folk dance "Yangge", whereas in the southern part, people call their folk dance "Huagudung" or "Huadung". These folk dances commonly exist among peasants whose essential daily activity is farming. China has been an agricultural country throughout its long history; even the Chinese lunar calendar is based on the agricultural cycle. Due to the changing of seasons, there are times (for example in winter) when peasants have not much work to do. In their free time, they like to practice dance for enjoyment and entertainment. These peasants/dancers often develop a high level of dance skill and technique through continuous practice and are called "artists" in their community in recognition of their superior dancing ability. Many of these artists are better known by their "stage name" which usually depicts their special skill or their unique character.
Han folk dance as practiced by these local artists has some unique characteristics, which are very different in comparison to other forms of Chinese dances, for example:
- The use of dance props ranging from large to small such as Lion, Dragon, Fan, Scarf, Drum.
- Males playing female roles in dance. This is partly due to Confucian ideology and teaching which prevented male/female from coming into close contact in public. (The feudal aesthetic, beginning with the Sung dynasty (960-1279 A.D), encouraged women to bind their feet, and is partially responsible for males playing female roles in various forms of performing arts such as dance and theatre.)
- The importance of particular role-types in dance: for example in "Yangge" where various roles such as "young man", "young woman", "old man", "ugly woman", "stupid kid", etc. which are played by different dancers.
- The inclusion of theatrical elements such as mime and drama sometimes depict a short plot.
"Shaoshu Minzu WuDao", which means minority nationality dances, are usually performed for enjoyment and are improvised by the dancer. Due to differences of custom, religious belief, climate, and geographic location of the minority groups, each expresses their dance differently. For example, Tibetans wear long sleeves and tap-dance; Mongolians mimic horseback riding in their shoulder movement. Moreover, within each group, there may be sub-groups, which have slightly different dance styles. One important factor to remember is that these minority nationality dances are also "traditional" in the sense that they are passed down from generation to generation and that they survive with the community's people.
The Beijing Dance Academy which is the most important dance training centre in China, has focused its folk dance curriculum on five nationalities in eight regions since it is impossible to include all the nationality dance in a four-year dance training program. The curriculum includes Han, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uygur, and Korean dances. The eight regions include four Han, which are Dongbei, Shandong, Hunan, and Anhul; and four minority nationalities, which are Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Yanbien. In addition, the Academy has just established an independent class for folk dance, which is separate from classical dance. This will enable them to incorporate more minority nationality dances such as Dai, Yi and Miao into their dance curriculum.
The second major style of Chinese dance is called "Gudian WuDao" which means classical dance. China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Therefore, there are many "classical" periods in its long history. Since the successful production of the dance drama Rain of Flowers on the Silk Road which was choreographed after the paintings found in the Dunhuang caves, people in all regions started to find their "roots" and reconstruct their own "Classical" dance. Most of these dances are newly choreographed in attempts to reconstruct the dance of the past based on the present day's understanding and knowledge of dance vocabulary. In addition, people have also researched available historical records of dance materials such as relics, paintings on caves, written descriptions of dance in ancient poems and literature.
Lastly, there is "Minzu WuJu" which means national dance drama (for example, The Magic Lantern and The Butterfly Lovers). These usually have a new choreography which may combine both Chinese and Western dance vocabularies. Moreover, they may reflect either historical or contemporary events. However, they are all considered to be "Chinese Dance" since they reflect the story of the Chinese people (including the minority nationalities) either in the past or present.