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The Rich History of Traditional Chinese Dance: Discover the Cultural Treasure

Last Updated on 2023/04/29

Tracing the Origins: From Ancient Ceremonial Dances to Imperial Court Performances

China has a long recorded history of various dance forms. The oldest Chinese character for “dance”, 舞, found in oracle bones, depicts a dancer holding oxtails in each hand. Dance in China encompasses a vast assortment of modern and traditional genres, ranging from folk dances to performances in opera and ballet. Like in many parts of the world, dance can be used in public celebrations, rituals, and ceremonies.

There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, each with its own folk dances. Many traditional dances have a long history, including folk dances, ritual or entertainment performances, and imperial court dances. The dragon and lion dances are among the best-known traditional Chinese dances, with various forms known throughout different dynasties. A form of the lion dance similar to today’s was described as far back as the Tang dynasty, while the modern form of the dragon dance may be more recent. Some Chinese and contemporary dances even date back to the Zhou Dynasty era, such as the Long Sleeve Dance.

The most important early dances were ritual and ceremonial, called yayue, performed well into the Qing dynasty but now only surviving as performances in Confucian ceremonies. In the Six Dynasties era (220 – 589 AD), Central Asian influences were strong in music and dance. Dance as an art form reached its peak in the Tang Dynasty, showcasing extremely diverse styles. A large number of dances were recorded in the Tang Dynasty, with over 60 large-scale compositions from the Tang court. However, the art of dance declined as a separate art form in later dynasties, becoming absorbed into Chinese opera.

It is believed that some of the most ancient dances featured dancers dressed as animals and mythological beasts. The Han Dynasty mentions some forms of the dragon dance. As for the lion dance, it is hypothesized that this dance was introduced from a territory outside China, since lions are not native to the country. A detailed description of the dance appeared in the Tang Dynasty, recognized as a foreign import, though it may have existed in China as early as the 3rd century AD. Tang poet Bai Juyi described a version of the dance resembling the modern one in his poem “The Arts of Western Liang” (西凉伎), with dancers wearing a lion costume consisting of a wooden head, a silk tail, a hairy body, gold-plated eyes, silver-plated teeth, and wiggling ears. Two main forms of Chinese lion dance exist: the Northern Lion and the Southern Lion. A form of the lion dance, called the Snow Lion dance, is also found in Tibet.

Folk dances have played a crucial role in the development of dance in China. Some of the earliest dances in court rituals and ceremonies may have evolved from folk dances. Rulers of various dynasties collected folk dances, many of which eventually became court dances. Many folk dances are related to harvesting, hunting, and the ancient gods associated with these activities. For example, the Constellation Dance was performed to ask for an abundance of wheat seeds equivalent to the stars, while the Harpoon Dance was associated with Fuxi, who, according to mythology, gave the Han people a fishing net. The Dance of the Plow was related to Shennong, the god of agriculture.

Han Chinese folk dances

"The Masses Dance Yangge to Celebrate the Victory of the Anti-Japanese War"
“The Masses Dance Yangge to Celebrate the Victory of the Anti-Japanese War”, 1945, source

Yangge (秧歌) is a Chinese folk dance form that developed from a dance known in the Song Dynasty and is common in northern China. It is popular in both the countryside and cities of northern China, especially among older people. Crowds of people often gather in the evening to dance together in a line or circle. In different areas, the Yangge is performed in various styles, but all types express happiness. In the 1940s, the Communist Party of China launched the new Yangge movement, using dance as a means of garnering village support.

Lantern Dance is an ancient folk dance form in southern China, used to tell stories and share traditions of Chinese culture. It also serves as a form of entertainment, with lanterns used as props.

Errenzhuan (二人转) is a folk dance genre from northeastern China, usually involving two performers (male and female). The dance involves folding fans or red square-shaped handkerchiefs, which are swirled while songs are played. It is popular for its comedic dialogues and sketches.

Dance is at the heart of Chinese theater and Peking Opera. In the entertainment centers called wazi during the Song Dynasty, various theatrical forms flourished, Chinese opera began to take shape, and dance started to merge into opera. Dances such as the “Dance of Judgment” (舞判, also called the Dance of Zhong Kui, 跳鐘馗) in the Ming Dynasty, and Song Dynasty dances like “Flag Waving” (撲旗子) became opera pieces. The sword dance is another dance adopted in opera. Chinese opera became very popular under the Yuan Dynasty, and in later dynasties, dances were absorbed into opera. Ritual dances, which were considered of great importance at the court, have largely disappeared from modern Han Chinese culture, although they are still found in certain folk traditions and ethnic minority cultures.

Ethnic minorities dances

Each of the 56 ethnic groups in China has its own dance with ethnic characteristics, interpreting local culture, lifestyle, and ethnic customs through dance.

Baishou Dance (摆手舞, literally “hand-waving dance”) is a historical group dance of the Tujia, one of the 55 ethnic minorities in China, dating back 500 years. The dance uses 70 ritual gestures to represent warfare, agriculture, hunting, courtship, and other aspects of traditional life.

Mongolian Bowl Dance (頂碗舞) is a dance in which dancers balance several bowls on their heads while dancing.

Long Drum Dance (長鼓舞) is a dance of the Yao people, which inspired the orchestral composition Dance of the Yao People.

Sanam dance (赛乃姆) is an ethnic dance popular among the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. It is commonly performed at weddings and festive occasions. The music usually starts slowly and gradually gets faster, so the dances get faster as well.

Lhamo is a Tibetan opera with dance and song. The dance, performed for centuries, consists of performances with simple narrative and dialogue interspersed with comedy and satire; the characters wear colorful masks. The central stories of these plays are mainly drawn from ancient Indian Buddhist folktales, the lives of important personalities, and historical events of Tibetan civilization. However, the ceremonial, dance, and ritual performances strongly reflect the Tibetan royal dynastic period.

Ritual dances

The torch festival of the Yi people, author: Oliver Huang

Yi dance (釋奠佾舞|佾舞, literally “line dance”), originally a court dance, was later adopted within Confucian ceremonies. Performed in rows by dancers wearing pheasant feathers and red flutes in a square formation, the dancers symbolize the civilian population. When carrying a shield and battle ax, they represent the military forces. The inclusion of props in dance has its origins in the Shang Dynasty. In Confucian temples, the ceremony is performed with 8 rows of 8 dancers (the Dance of the Eight Yi, 64 dancers in total). Originally, the dances were performed with 6 rows of 6 dancers (36 dancers). A modern version of the dance is presented for tourists at the Confucian temple in Qufu. This Confucian dance is also performed in Taiwan and Korea.

Nuo dance (儺舞) is a dance that uses masks. It can be performed in the Opera Nuo or as a ritual during festivals to drive away evil spirits, devils, diseases, and evil influences, and also to ask for blessings from the gods. Nuo means oath, binding expression, or exorcism in Chinese religious culture. “Nuo” is a step designed to cast out the devil during the last month of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Lamas performing Cham Dance in Tibet
Sacred dances and rites at Kangpoudong Lamasery. Every Tibetan New Year they resort to these rites to evoke the arrival of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) in Tibet (1933) more

Cham dance is a costumed Tibetan Buddhist masked dance. The dance is accompanied by music played by monks using traditional Tibetan instruments. The dances often offer moral instruction relating to karuṇā (compassion) for sentient beings and are believed to bring merit and virtue to all who perceive them. This is considered a form of meditation and an offering to the gods.

Contemporary dances in China

In contemporary China, dances are also practiced daily as physical exercise in squares or parks. According to Lüshi Chunqiu, during Emperor Yao’s time, a dance was created as a physical exercise to keep people healthy after a prolonged period of wet weather. Martial arts poses are also incorporated into the movements of these dances, as they provide physical fitness benefits in addition to fighting skills. In fact, Tai Chi, from a purely visual perspective, represents a choreographic dance.

As for modern dance, ballet’s official introduction in China took place with the foundation of the Beijing Dance School in 1954, with Dai Ailian as director and some eminent Russian teachers, including Pyotr Gusev, who established the Russian training system. The National Ballet was founded on the last day of 1959 as the Experimental Ballet Company of the Beijing Dance School Company. During the Cultural Revolution under Madame Mao, dramas of the revolutionary model were established, and the repertoire was eventually reduced to two ideological ballets: The Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl. After the fall of the Gang of Four, the ballet company began to reform and change direction with Western classical ballets, and the range was broadened to include more international modern ballets.

Modern traditional dance is a performance where the modern imagination of ancient dances using modern choreography is staged. This type of dance is more commonly seen in theaters and on television, with the famous Tang Dynasty Rainbow Feather Dress Dance as a notable example.

Dunhuang dance is a Chinese dance that combines traditional culture and modern art. The composition is inspired by the frescoes of the Mogao caves in Gansu province. The dance showcases a combination of Central and Western Chinese ethnic dance styles. The dances themselves are also influenced by Buddhist imagery and Buddhism.

Youthful Dancesteps
Youthful Dancesteps

Related articles: The Evolution Of Chinese Culture In The 1980s: Youthful Dancesteps

Ballroom dancing became popular in the 20th century in the nightclubs of 1940s Shanghai. Even early communist leaders, such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, attempted dance steps in Soviet-style ballrooms. Ballroom dances were replaced with massive group dances, such as the yangge social dance, after the Cultural Revolution. Ballroom dancing was reintroduced after the liberalization of China at the turn of the century.

In the last twenty years, various forms of dance from all over the world have spread in China, and the population has begun to integrate them by starting to follow courses in Latin American dance, belly dance, pole dance, and more. This international influence has led to a rich and diverse dance culture in contemporary China, with people of all ages and backgrounds exploring different styles and traditions.

Dance competitions and reality television shows featuring dance have also become popular in China, further fueling interest in various dance styles. These shows often showcase talented individuals and groups from different regions, highlighting the diverse dance heritage of the country.

Topics: dance in China, Chinese folk dances, traditional Chinese dance, modern dance, ballet, international dance, dance culture in China, Chinese dance history, dance styles, contemporary dance.

Featured image: The National Ballet of China performing ‘The Fairy of the Clouds’, source

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