China is a huge country in eastern Asia. It is the world's largest
country in population and the third largest in area. About a fifth of
the world's people
(over 1 billion!) live in China. Beijing is the
capital and China’s second largest city.
Although China has some of the largest cities in the world and over a
hundred cities with more than a million people, the majority of the
population still live in rural areas. Half of all workers in China are
About 92 percent of the population in China belong to the Han
nationality. The remaining 8 percent are made up over more than 55
minority groups—including Kazakhs, Mongols and Tibetans—that are
distinguished by a unique language and culture. The Chinese refer to
their country as Zhongguo, which means “Middle Country.” It is a
reference to ancient China’s perception of itself as the geographical
and cultural center of the world.
[ Chinese Theatrical Dance (Wuju) | DunHuang Dance | Kunqu Opera | Lion Dance ]
Coming from a broad and vast country with numerous ethnic groups,
Chinese dance has a history of over five thousand years. Until the Han
dynasty (206 B. C. - A. D. 220), most of the Chinese dances originated
from the "folks," people dancing in their communities and at
celebrations. During the Han period, a musical entertainment court was
established for the imperial family, which was essentially a center for
systematically documenting and enhancing folk songs and dances. Later,
because of the political stability and the economic prosperity of the
Tang dynasty (A. D. 618 - 907), poetry, music and dance flourished.
Dances in the Tang dynasty inherited techniques that were developed
in the past dynasties such as Zhou, Qin, Han, Wei, Jin, and Nanbei. During
the early Tang period, Buddhism was introduced to China, and because
trade and social relationship with other countries rapidly expanded,
dances were influenced by folk dances of other countries such as India,
Rome, Persia (Iran), Korea, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, and other Central
Asian countries. In addition, it also combined with other forms of fine
arts such as painting, scenery, and colorful costumes as well as poetry,
classical music and drama. The combination of these colorful traditions
brought the performing arts to a new peak, and the Tang dynasty has been
regarded as the golden age for dance in ancient China.
Chinese Theatrical Dance (Wuju)
This dance-drama style develops themes from sources like the Chinese Opera,
of which the Peking or Beijing form is best known as the "national" opera style
of China, and marries them with dance techniques from the West. In Chinese
operas, there are often complex story lines that can feature the various disciplines
of performing arts, such as singing, acting, music, acrobatics, and story telling,
in different parts of the same play. In theatrical dance, however, vignettes
are performed that frame a moment in a much longer narrative. The costumes
are from the traditional design of Peking Opera for the intellectuals, with
the folding fans typical for this type of character, for example.
Chinese theatrical dance traces its origin to court celebrations in
ancient China. With the influence of Russian Ballet techniques after
the 1949 Revolution, Chinese theatrical dance became a national project.
During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese ballet became known abroad as
Revolutionary Ballet with its themes of proletarian solidarity and Communist
political leadership. Madame Jiang Qing's two famous ballets of that
period, "The White-Haired Girl" and "The Red Detachment of Women" have
both disappeared from the contemporary repertoire.
Today, Chinese wuju themes range from those based on fairy tales and
literary references - often accompanied by traditional Chinese music
played with a variety of instruments such as er-hu and pi-pa - to folkloric
staging of regional minority dances, all orchestrated.
Chinese traditional music is pentatonic and is rooted in the rich soil
of folk customs and feelings. Increasingly, Western orchestration in
terms of harmonic effect, and contemporary techno music with its heavy
beat (along with modern dance technique) have entered the stream of Chinese
dance over the past decades and are becoming part of the Chinese theatrical
dance music stock.
DunHuang, an ancient city in Gansu Province, Western China, was the
gateway to what was called the "Silk Road" leading to Central Asia and
Europe. The Silk Road or Silk Route refers to not one but many routes
of trade and cultural and religious exchange extending from China, through
Central Asia, to the Middle East and Western Europe. DunHuang is world
famous for its artistic sculpture statues and fresco paintings of the
4th - 14th century in China, which reflect Silk Road civilization and
important aspects of the Chinese people's religious life, arts, and customs
in the history, including the introduction of Buddhism to China during
this period. Over 1,000 caves were cut out of the cliffs in Dunhuang
in this period, and a wide variety of colored frescoes and murals were
preserved in these caves before it excavations in the 20th century. It
has been regarded as a national treasure of China.
DunHuang frescoes contain many artistic representations of famous images
as depicted in various Buddhist stories and sutras - classic religious
texts of Buddhism. These outstanding and graceful artistic images show
as aesthetic form that often reflected daily life in China in the age
the frescoes were painted. In the late 1980's, after close study of these
images from Dunhuang frescoes, leading Chinese dance experts created
a special Silk Road style dance called "DunHuang Dance." With a breathtaking
beauty and elegance, this cultural performance reflects a rich and distinctive
dance tradition in China.
Kunqu (pronounced kwin chu) is one of the oldest and most refined
styles of traditional Chinese theater performed today. It is a
synthesis of dance, drama, opera, ballet, poetry recital, and music, and draws
on earlier forms of Chinese theatrical performances such as mime,
farce, acrobatics and ballad singing. Some of these theater traditions
date back to before the third century BC.
In a Kunqu performance, recitation is interspersed with arias sung to
traditional melodies, called qu-pai. Each word or phrase is also
expressed by a stylized movement or gesture that is part of the dance,
with strict rules of style and execution. Even casual gestures must be
precisely executed and timed to coordinate with the music and
percussion. The refinement of the movement is further enhanced with
stylized costumes, which also serve as simple props. In 2001, Kunqu was
honored by UNESCO as one of 19 "Masterpieces of the
Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."
The lion dance is typically performed at special celebrations to invoke
good luck, prosperity, and happiness. It marks the beginning of an
event or rite of passage such as, the New Year, a wedding, or a
business’ grand opening.
Chinese culture, the lion is considered a divine animal respected for
its nobility, bravery, and protective presence. Lions are believed to
have powers to ward off evil and to guard truth, thus lion statues are
found throughout Chinese communities the world over as sentinels to the
entrances of homes, palaces and temples, and even restaurants and
banks. Despite their ubiquitous place in Chinese society, lions are not
native to China. Their exact introduction into China is uncertain, yet
it is believed that they were first brought from Central Asia as part
of the Silk Road trade and given as gifts to emperors of the Eastern
Han Dynasty of 25-220 CE. Chinese literature of the Han Dynasty
mentions lion dances, and ceramic figurines of the Tang Dynasty depict
Originally associated with Taoist ceremonies, the lion
dance was used to invoke deities and bring auspiciousness to the
community. Over the years the dance has evolved as a form of
entertainment, yet many elements retain symbolic meaning. Certain
musical beats relate to Taoist deities, some movements contain
ceremonial steps to exorcize evil, the mirror on the lion’s forehead is
believed to absorb universal energy that reflects back onto the
community, and the drumming and shouting represent the Chinese
pictogram for joy.
Mostly preserved by martial arts schools, the lion dance has been performed in San Francisco since 1852.