Used as a tool to assassinate, to charm and entice and even deceive in ancient China, Chinese dance takes form in many various styles and categories – such as Lion Dance, Wu Shu and even Chinese Opera. Let’s take a brief stroll through history to find out more, shall we?
In the countless historical dramas and movies depicting China, there will always be some form of dancing involved, whether its Wong Fei Hong and his famous Lion Dance scene or even Scarlet Heart’s dazzling dance for the royals. Even from these highly stylised examples, it could not be denied that dance is often intricately intertwined in China’s almost 5,000 years long recorded history.
Early Chinese Dance
The earliest interpretations of dance stems from religious rituals and eventually became entertainment for the courts. One of the oldest evidence to date is a 4,500-year-old pottery featuring images of Chinese dancers and there have been even mythical evidence where the legendary Yellow Emperor was honoured with “Dance of the Cloud Gate”.
Chinese culture exploded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), when flourishing trade with other countries influenced the Chinese dance style greatly. Chinese dance influences spilled over into neighbouring countries such as Japan and Korea, where such influences can still be seen in traditional Japanese and Korean art forms today.
It was also during the Tang Dynasty where China’s first royal music and art academy was founded by then Emperor Xuan Zong. Named The Pear Garden, many dancers and musicians were trained by the Emperor and even the emperor himself joined in the trainings.
Unfortunately, the many rebellions and wars during the Five Dynasties after the fall of the Tang Dynasty resulted in a great loss of these precious dances. Common folk then turned to Chinese opera instead of pure Chinese dance. However, much of the opera incorporated traditional dance forms of previous dynasties, so all was not lost. In fact, this shift cultivated much of the classical Chinese Opera we see today.
The Communist Era
Dance was heavily used for propaganda when the Communists came to power in 1949. In particular, a form known as Yang Ge was performed at their early victories in parades while troupes carrying Communist-Pro messages went around performing to the public.
However, this came to a sudden stop when then-Chairman Mao Zedong, convinced that dance was a threat to the pure Communist ideology and a form of indulgence, banned all forms of it in 1966, in particular western-influenced forms of dance such as ballet and ballroom. This was announced with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Many Chinese who grew up during this era had no notion of what dance is, and the only types of dance were only seen in “revolutionary ballets” that were under the control of the Communist Party.
Eventually the end of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong saw the re-emergence and return of Chinese dance.
This was the period which saw artists get together to systematically document Chinese dance – where previously it was passed down by the common folk – and this gave rise to the classical form of Chinese Dance where folk dance technique was incorporated with Chinese Opera elements and martial art techniques.
Modern Chinese Dance
Currently, Chinese Dance is split into two main categories – the Classical, and the Ethnic Folk.
The Classical Technique which was created soon after the beginning of the Communist Era were greatly influenced by the ballet techniques developed by the Russians and the French. This technique forms part of the foundation of Chinese Opera and Wu Shu as we know today.
The Ethnic Folk is greatly influenced by the 56 minorities of China, where Han stands as the majority within the 56. Each has highly varied interpretations of dance and stories and focused mainly on the unique rhythm and emotion of the dance.
In 1993, professionals from the Beijing Dance Academy, the most prestigious dance academy in China, created the Chinese Classical Dance Graded Examination (CCDGE) syllabus that assessed the technique and dance quality of Chinese dancers around the globe, allowing the various forms of Chinese Dance to have a platform to showcase to the world the colourful culture of China and their dance. Soon after, the Chinese Folk Dance Graded Examination (CFDGE) was also established to promote the minorities to the world.
Regardless of the impacts social order and politics has on the society, dance is often the one thing that brings communities together, regardless through propaganda or even just to pass the time. In the 5,000-year history of China, dance may have faced many issues, but it is a testimony of the endurance of dance, for it to have lasted so long.
Stay with us for the next month’s release of DANCE || CULTURE, where we speak with Principal Choreographer Ms Jenny Neo of Singapore Chinese Dance Theatre (SCDT) on Chinese Dance and Singapore!
SCDT is having their Open House on the 11th of November:
Do check out our other DANCE || CULTURE articles:
Ms Jenny Neo, SCDT
Hays, Jeffrey. “CHINESE DANCE.” Facts and Details, (factsanddetails.com/china/cat7/sub41/item247.html.)
Zi, Yun. “The Origin and Revolution of Chinese Dance.” Association for Asia Research- The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Dance, (www.asianresearch.org/articles/3076.html.)