- Not Just Fans and Ribbons

The Vibrant Diversity of a Magnificent Art Form

by Patty Hung (features editor)

Excerpt from The Worldly - World Culture Web Magazine

Fans and ribbons. This is the stereotypical image that appears in many of our minds when we hear about Chinese cultural dance. However, let us keep from becoming like the ignorant judge at a friend's dance competition who, upon seeing a costume that bares the midriff, demanded that the dancers be disqualified because "that was not Chinese dance." With as many as 56 minority nationalities and seven major folk dance styles, Chinese cultural dance is as diverse as though the styles were from different countries.

That said, it is hardly fair to blame anyone for associating Chinese cultural dance with fans and ribbons. These particular props are associated with dances of the Han people, a nationality that comprises 91% of China's population. The Han people have traditionally lived in towns and villages, and their relative sophistication in worldly matters are embodied in their dances. Based on the Dong Bei people's vibrant personalities and firm belief in ying and yang, the dance movements often juxtapose two contrasting elements in a single combination. For example, you might hear both quick and slow portions in the music or see large versus small or explosive versus smooth movements in one dance. Han dances are often coquettish and facially expressive, and many are used to deliver feelings of love.

In stark contrast to festive Han dances are Tibetan dances, the epitome of piety and grace. Because of the hardships that Tibetan people endure during the long, cold winters in the Buddhist Himalayas, Tibetan dance is usually slow and solemn with a tint of longing. Many movements are done in a hunched posture indicative of the heavy baskets that the Tibetans carry on their backs during their annual nomadic migrations. The signature of Tibetan dance is the costume's long sleeves that can sometimes be as long as two yards.

The Gobi Desert in Mongolia provides as much sun as the Himalayas provide snow. Mongolian dance has an abundance of movements mimicking horses, as these animals are central to the people's nomadic lifestyle. The dances are always free and proud and represent the Mongolian people's persistence against their harsh living environments and their love for the land.

Traveling "south of the clouds" to the Yunnan region bordering Thailand, there is a completely different feel to the Dai dances. Because of the tropical climate, Dai girls traditionally wear cropped tops and straight skirts that open slightly in a bell-like shape below the knees. Dai dances are characterized by the "three-way curve" and quick kicks that imitate walking in water. Because the region is extremely rural, Dai dances incorporate many aspects of nature, including peacock and fish movements and bamboo shapes.

Also in the Yunnan region, but populating several other areas in China as well, is the Yi nationality. Yi dances are known for their large, colorful skirts, which can span 360 degrees. Some Yi tribes also use tobacco boxes as props, striking them with their fingers to make sounds. Hospitable and passionate, the Yi people often gather in groups after sunset and dance in the moonlight.

Reflecting the culture of the two million Koreans living in the Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Liaoning Provinces, Chaoxian dances have been agreed upon by Chinese dancers as the most difficult style of Chinese cultural dance. Chaoxian dances focus heavily on breathing through movements, and the gliding steps are smooth and graceful. The long dresses are cinched in the middle of the torso, and sometimes fans and bells are used as props.

The Uygur dances from Xinjiang Province include movements reminiscent of Eastern European cultural dances. The dances exhibit the confidence of the Uygur people and include movements such as Arabian-like head movements from side to side. The Uygur people take every opportunity to draw your attention to their prominent facial features, using their hands to frame their faces while showing off intense eye movements.

From props and costumes to signature moves and cultural personalities, the various styles of Chinese cultural dance exhibit wonderfully distinct qualities. One cannot fully appreciate the beautiful diversity within Chinese dance without seeing it firsthand. [ Or better yet, try dancing it firsthand! ]

[Learn More About Chinese Dance]