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Chinese Folk Dances

When one speaks of folk dances in connection with Chinese culture, most people today think of the quaint folk dances of ethnic minorities, forgetting that the forefathers of the "tribe" that would later be referred to as the Han Chinese were perhaps the first Chinese people to make use of ritual dancing. The early Chinese folk dances, like other forms of primitive art, were essentially ritual enactments of superstitious beliefs performed in the hope of a good harvest, or – in the case of the earliest Chinese folk dances – in the hope of a good hunt, since the earliest Chinese folk dances were performed by hunter-gatherer folk.

Though no corresponding written historical source exists, archeologists have found pottery shards in China dating from the 4th millenium BC (about 6000 years ago) which depict dancers brandishing spears and other weapons that were used for hunting. There is thus a direct parallel between the earliest Chinese hunting-dance rituals and the Cro-Magnon paintings on the walls of the caves of Lascaux in south-central France (the Department of Dordogne) that depict the animals hunted by those cave dwellers, and before which, to the flickering flames of a nightly bonfire, hunting dances may well have been performed; both were done in the belief that by performing these rituals, the hunter thus gained power over the hunted.

Much, much later, during the Han (BC206 – CD 220) Dynasty period, when most of the folk dances of the many ethnic minorities of present-day China were developed, the ethnic groups in question had long since become primarily farmers, if not farmer-gatherers, i.e., farmers who supplemented their annual harvest with the gathering of freely growing fruits and nuts as well as with fishes caught from rivers, lakes – and the ocean, where applicable – and of course some hunting, especially with the aid of traps, was practiced. Therefore the folk dances that were developed during this period reflected a superstitious belief that in making ritual sacrifices to the gods in appreciation of the "harvest" (i.e., to include freely growing nuts & berries, fishes, etc.), one could persuade the gods to provide another bountiful harvest in the following year.

Miao danceFolk dance of Miao ethic group

In spite of modern-day realities, i.e., in spite of the fact that the descendants of these ancient farmer-gatherers now have more stable forms of agriculture – and many of them are no longer employed in agriculture at all, but have office jobs – the ritual dances continue, even if the ancient superstition may have been superseded with a modern belief that in upholding the traditions of the past, including the communal folk dance, one might therewith reinforce social cohesion and help to preserves one's cultural identity.

Two of the main Chinese folk dances – the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance – stem from the Han Chinese, even if these have since been borrowed by many other Chinese ethnic minorities. In addition, one of the most elaborate forms of Chinese folk dance, the Court Dance (sometimes referred to as the Palace Dance), was originally adopted by the royal court of a Han Chinese emperor (Emperor Qin of the Qin (BC 221-207) Dynasty), though subsequent Chinese emperors, including those of Mongol or Jürchen/ Manchu background, continued the well-established custom of the Court Dance. Dragon dance and lion dance are usually presented during Chinese Lunar New Year Festival. China Highlights' new year festival tours offer our customers a great opportunity to celebrate the festival together with real Chinese people.

Ethnic Minority Folk Dance

Traditional dance of Dai minorityFolk dance of Dai minority

China has 56 ethnic minorities, each of which has a culture that is characterized by, among other features, a set of unique folk dances. Since each ethnic group's folk dances reflect the peculiarities of that group's religious, cultural and historical narrative, as it were, the dances – their choreography and their colorful costumes – naturally relect this ethnic narrative. That said, many of the dances of ethnic minority groups share common themes such as rivalry, jealously and love – but also forgiveness – as well as matrimonial bliss and the communal bond. The communal bond plays an important role in many ethnic dances, and, indeed, one of the main reasons for the ritual performance of these ethnic dances on festive occasion is to reinforce social cohesion among the group. The folk dance is one of the most cherished forms of artistic expression among the Chinese people. In a sense, the folk dance can be interpreted as the simplest and most immediately available form of informal theatre – and indeed, the Chinese folk dance has in many instances successfully made the transition to formal Chinese theatre.

While the heritage of the folk dance that was passed down the generations among ethnic groups as a whole was rich and varied, it was unevenly distributed from group to group, partly because whole chapters, as it were, of the tradition had been lost, for various reasons, often owing to the upheavals of war and the struggle for survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Therefore, after the PRC came to power, it set about to help the ethnic minorities to each regain its unique modes of expression, including as complete a recovery as possible of the art and practice of the folk dance, through a thorough research into the historical record. The result is that the richness of the original Chinese ethnic folk dance, in all its aspects – both in terms of choreography and repertoire as well as in terms of the exact replication of the original costumes – has slowly made a comeback, and today is recognized, also beyond China's borders, as a world cultural heritage worthy of preservation.

Lusheng Festival of Miao Ethnic PeopleFolk dance of Miao ethic group at Lusheng Festival

Places that you are more likely to appreciate authentic ethnic shows and dance are where most of China ethnic people lives. Most of these areas are located in China's remote southwestern and northwestern frontiers,including Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, and Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions. During Lusheng Festival and Sister's Meal Festival of the Miao people in Guizhou Province,traditional Miao performance and Lusheng music are presented. The greatest time to view Dai dance is Water Splashing Festival held 13th to 15th each April.  China Highlights offers a special tour to the city of Jinghong each year to coincide with the Dai ethinic minority's annual Water Splashing Festival.

Folk dances were of course more than simple vehicles of ethnic expression, they were sometimes highly sophisticated and elaborate – even dazzlingly spectacular – displays of dance and pageantry, sometimes with a martial arts theme, choreographed to celebrate official ceremonies, from a banquet in honor of a distinguished visitor – including a foreign ambassador such as a Marco Polo – to the coronation of an emperor. One or more of the dances in such a repertoire, known as Court Dances, might depict a famous battle fought by the reigning emperor, perhaps before he became emperor, such as the famous Court Dance, Prince Qin's Cavalry, written and choreographed by Li Shimin, aka Emperor Taizong of the Tang (618-907) Dynasty, as a patriotic reminder to his people of the need for military preparedness, or of the necessity of not slipping into complacency in times of peace (as a young man of 19, Li Shimin, known as Prince Qin at the time, had participated in military campaigns alongside his father, Emperor Gaozu, the founder – and first emperor – of the Tang Dynasty).

Of course, Court Dances might also simply be special adaptations – for the sole purpose of amusement – of the dances that were performed for ordinary audiences, perhaps portraying ordinary people as buffoons. The reverse happened as well, where the same actors would stage performances for ordinary crowds that mocked royalty, and if the emperor learned of these and was a good sport, he might ask the dancers to perform the "commoner" version at court, just to prove that he was broad-minded.

In the following, only the main Chinese folk dance forms, the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance as well as the Court Dance, will be described. Note that both the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance are permanent fixtures wherever the Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated, both in China and abroad.

The Court Dance

Prince Qin's Cavalry – This dance, which ostensibly celebrates the might and grandeur of the Imperial army, was performed as a reminder to the emperor's entourage – including ministers and princes – to never let one's guard down, but to always be prepared to go into battle to defend the motherland. Prince Qin's Cavalry involved a huge troupe of performers, consisting of well over a hundred dancers, as soldiers, and nearly twice as many singers and musicians. It was on such a grand scale that one can only liken it to a theatre performance. The music and the choreography, authored, as indicated, by the emperor himself, was naturally set to a military cadence, with the royal audience encouraged to beat the floor with their scabbards in time with the music. The dance involved 12 "acts" in all, portraying the preparation for battle (including spectacular sword dance displays), the lining up in tight battle formations, and the battle scenes themselves.

Tang Dynasty ShowCourt dance of Tang Dynasty

Nichang Yuyi – Nichang Yuyi (the Song of Enduring Sorrow) is also a royal creation, written and choreographed by Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuan Zong (known privately as Li Longji) who reigned from 712-756. The dance, sometimes referred to as the Feather Dress Dance due to the fact that the costumes are adorned with soft, fluttery feathers, suggesting lighness and flight, concerns a legend about an emperor who dreams that he travels to the moon and there, in a palace, sees a group of beautiful, heavenly virgins dressed in feathers and rosy clouds dancing in the skies. When the emperor awakens from this dream and recounts it to his concubine, the concubine recreates the dance for the emperor.

Tang Dynasty Show, originated from the court dance of the Tang Dynasty, is considered as a must-see attraction for each tourist to Xi'an. China Highlights' tours to Xian all include a chance to watch this pageantry.

The storyline notwithstanding, this dance became a famous fixture in China, and is still staged wherever Chinese dance is performed, thanks in no small part to the "gauzy" effect both of the dancers' seemingly weightless, graceful motion, and their feathery costumes.

Other Court Dances, usually chosen for one or another distinctive feature – some of which were "commoner" folk dances that were specially reworked so as to appeal to a royal court audience – include the Qipan Dance, the Bayu Dance and the Huteng Dance.

The Dragon Dance

Dragon DanceThe performance of Dragon Dance needs many dancers to animate the dragon properly.

The dragon, with its fierce looking head especially, symbolizes dignity, wisdom and power in Chinese society, including the power to terrify. Fortunately, the Chinese dragon represents a benevolent force, even a happy one, who wishes nothing more than to bring prosperity to the people (though this is never mentioned in Chinese sources, an outsider to Chinese culture like me cannot help but substitute the qualities of the dragon – wise, dignified and powerful, yet benevolent – with the image that any respectable emperor would like to project, so for me personally, the dragon is an icon that links to the emperor... and I wonder if the emperor's subjects back then did not also make that same linkage).

The Dragon Dance belongs to a category of folk dances in which acrobatics figures prominently, for the writhing antics of the dragon requires acrobatic leaps in order to suggest the undulating, swooping motions of such a large creature, though the dancers support the mock dragon on poles that can be raised, lowered and swung about as needed. Depending on the length of the mock dragon, up to 50 dancers can be required to animate it properly.

There are several versions of the Dragon Dance, one of the most popular of which is the Fire Dragon performance, during which countless lanterns are paraded before the dragon, symbolizing the creature's fiery breath. The Dragon Dance, as it is performed in China (the Dragon Dance is also a permanent fixture in almost every Chinese Lunar New Year celebration in the many Chinatowns all across the world, one of the largest such annual celebrations being the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade & Festival in the US state of California), is an interactive experience, with jubilant crowds beating drums and gongs. Various parts of the mock dragon's body are lit up with roman-candle-like, spewing fireworks, adding to the festive spirit. Read more on Chinese Dragon Dance

The Lion Dance

The spring festivalThe Lion Dance

By far the most popular folk dance performance in all of China is the Lion Dance. The ancient Chinese, like the Greeks and the Romans who would appear after them, prized the qualities of that king of beasts, the lion, seeing it as a guardian figure (the most common depiction of the lion, anywhere, is the male specimen, and in fact, the role of the male lion – who is otherwise rather lazy, leaving the female lions to shoulder the lion's share of the hunting – is precisely to defend the pride, usually simply by making his presence felt, oftentimes in the form of nothing more than a threatening roar). The animal seen by the Chinese people stemmed from India (the African lion is larger), but was no less awe-inspiring. The lion also has symbolic significance in Buddhism, yet another reason for the typical Chinese Imperial subject to admire this fierce beast.

The Lion Dance has a different significance in northern versus southern China. In northern China, the Lion Dance is generally much more evocative, being performed by acrobatic dancers, suggesting all the ferocity and agility of the mighty lion. It was accordingly a favorite dance at court as well. The colors of the "northern" lion were usually a combination or red, orange and yellow (i.e., royal colors) – though green body fur was generally used to represent the female specimen – and with an oversized, shaggy, golden head for the male specimen.

In southern China, the lion takes on the more symbolic role of one who guards against – or in some cases exorcises – evil spirits. The color scheme of the "southern" lion was of no particular importance, therefore they appear in a variety of colors. The head of the southern lion is also oversized, but with even disproportioniately larger eyes, with a "unique horn" (single horn) at the center of the head and with a mirror on its forehead, reflecting light with each of the beast's movements.

In contrast to the Dragon Dance, the Lion Dance is generally performed with only 2 dancers, whereas the Dragon Dance requires, at a minimum, 10 dancers. This surely goes a long way to explain what is called the popularity of the Lion Dance, for the Lion Dance can be staged in even the smallest, most remote village, and in the south of China – where the majority of China's various ethnic minorities are concentrated – no acrobat is required, as the Lion Dance there is not meant to be evocative, but is strictly symbolic. Read more on Chinese Lion Dance

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