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The Art of Chinese Dance

Most people use sound to communicate in their everyday life, but a dancer on stage uses his limbs and body to do the same thing. Just like the Chinese language, Chinese dance has its own unique vocabulary, semantics, and syntactic structure that enable a dancer on stage to fully express his thoughts and feelings with ease and grace.

The art of Chinese dance traces its origins to even before the appearance of the first written Chinese characters. Ceramic pots have been unearthed in the Sun Chia Chai excavation site in Ta-tung County of the western Chinese province of Chinghai that depict colorful dancing figures. A study of these archaeological artifacts reveals that people of the Neolithic Yang-shao culture of around the fourth millennium B.C. already had choreo graphed group dances in which the participants locked arms and stamped their feet while singing to instrumental accompaniment.

Chinese dance was divided into two types, civilian and military, during the Shang and Chou periods of the first millennium B.C. In civilian dance, dancers held feather banners in their hands, symbolizing the distribution of the fruits of the day's hunting or fishing. This gradually developed into the dance used in the emperor's periodic sacrificial rituals held outside the city, and other religious rituals.

In the large group military dance, on the other hand, the dancers carried weapons in their hands, and moved forward and backward in coordinated group motion. This later evolved into the movements used in military exercises. Chinese used choreographic movements of the hands and feet to express their veneration of the spirits of heaven and earth, to act out aspects of their everyday life, and to give expression to shared feelings of joy and delight. Dance was also a performing art that brought pleasure to both the performers and the audience.

After the establishment of the Music Bureau in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), an active effort was made to collect folk songs and dances. By the third century A.D., northern China was subjugated by the Hsiungnu, Sienpi, and Western Chiang peoples. In this way, folk dance forms of the various peoples of Central Asia were introduced into China, and merged with the original dances of the Han people. This pattern continued well into the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Due to the more stable political situation during the T'ang Dynasty, dance in China entered into a period of unprecedented brilliance. The T'ang Dynasty imperial court founded the pear Garden Academy, the Imperial Academy, and the T'ai-ch'ang Temple, gathering the top dancing talent of the country to perform the magnificent, stately and incomparably lavish "Ten Movement Music" dance. This dance incorporated elements from dance forms of the peoples of China, Korea, Sinkiang, India, Persia, and Central Asia into one colossal dance. It featured intricate body movement techniques, and made full use of colorful, gala stage costumes and props to set off the refined dance movements. Poetry, songs, a dramatic plot, and background music were incorporated to create a comprehensive multimedia production rich in content and fanfare. This was a predecessor of modern Chinese opera.

Each minority people or aboriginal group of China has its own folk dance forms. The Miao (also known as Hmong) people of southwestern China, for example, developed a lively form of antiphonal singing and competitive dance; the aborigines of Taiwan, influenced by their island life and environment, created hand-holding line dances as part of a harvest ritual. Folk dances directly reflect the lifestyles and customs of a people, and in addition to their artistic value as dances, they are a precious part of China's cultural heritage.

In the Republic of China on Taiwan, the development of Chinese dance has taken on a dynamic and multifaceted personality. Young people going into dance usually first study ballet and modern dance, then go back to take a fresh look at the syntax of traditional Chinese dance. From there they seek out new directions for Chinese style body expression with an open mind and spirit of experimentation. Since about 1970, their original and unique compositions have occasioned a renaissance in Chinese dance.

The Cloud Gate Dance Troupe of Lin Hwai-min *** began by building on a foundation of the Martha Graham school of modern dance, and gradually absorbed elements from traditional Chinese operatic performance, along with responses to modern life. It is the most active and dynamic modern dance group in Taiwan. The Cloud Gate Dance Troupe performed abroad on a number of occasions, and is viewed internationally as the most representative of modern Chinese dance groups.

The New Classical Dance Troupe of Liu Feng-hsueh *** also takes modern dance as its starting point. Liu has conducted thorough research on traditional ethical and sacrificial dance and Taiwan aborigine folk dance. A deep level of logical thought is reflected in her dances, along with an emphasis on the human aspect. She was the first to study, import, and use dance scores.

The aim of the Hsu Hui-mei *** Dance Society is to collect and systematize traditional folk dances. The new dances she has created have not only the external characteristics of classical dance, but have also flawlessly incorporated the yen of modern Chinese for past grandeur.

Many universities and colleges in Taiwan now have dance departments with teachers able to systematically cultivate professional dance talent. Private dance societies work actively to interest children and youths in studying dance. Every year the Council for Cultural Planning and Development of the ROC Executive Yuan plans and holds and annual dance exhibition. They invite performers of all kinds of dance styles to create and choreograph new compositions; and they also organize performances, to foster popular interest in new developments in dance.

Large-scale dance programs and song and dance dramas are often staged in Taipei's recently completed National Theater as a major part of the theater's program. Top international dancers and dance troupes are invited to Taiwan to perform as part of an ongoin exchange in the arts. With the untiring efforts and contributions of today's dancers in the Republic of China on Taiwan, Chinese dance now looks forward to a rich and variegated future.

The Cloud Gate Dance Troupe performed in several countries
worldwide, and is considered one of the most representative
modern Chinese dance groups.


Cultural Division, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Houston
11 Greenway Plaza, Suite 2910
Houston, Texas, 77046
Tel: (713) 871-0851, Fax: (713) 871-0854, E-mail: houcul@houstoncul.org