Dance in China is a highly varied art form, consisting of many modern and traditional dance genres. The dances cover a wide range, from folk dances to performances in opera and ballet, and may be used in public celebrations, rituals and ceremonies. There are also 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, and each ethnic minority group in China also has its own folk dances. Outside of China, the best known Chinese dances today are the Dragon dance and the Lion dance.
There is a long recorded history of various forms of dance in China. The earliest Chinese character for "dance", , written in the oracle bones, is itself a representation of a dancer holding oxtails in each hand. Some Chinese dances today such as dancing with long sleeves have been recorded since the very early periods, dating from the at least as early as the Zhou Dynasty. The most important dances of the early period were the ritual and ceremonial music and dances called yayue, and these dances were performed at the imperial court until the Qing dynasty, but only survive today as performances in Confucian ceremonies.
The imperial court from the Qin dynasty onward established various departments responsible for the collection of music and dances, training of performers as well as their performances at the court, such as the Music Bureau and Royal Academy. During the Six Dynasties era (220 - 589 CE), there were strong influences from Central Asia in music and dance. The art of dance reached a peak in the Tang Dynasty, and the dances of the period were highly diverse and cosmopolitan, dances from Central Asia in particular were popular. A great number of dances were recorded in the Tang dynasty, for example there are over 60 Grand Compositions alone which are large scale performances from the Tang court, and there were tens of thousands of musicians and dancers at the Imperial palaces.
The art of dance however declined after the Tang dynasty. This is due in part to the increasing popularity of the practice of footbinding, which may have first arisen from dancers themselves but later tighter binding limited their movements, and greater social restriction placed on women may have also led to a virtual elimination of female dancers. Furthermore, dance was absorbed into Chinese opera that started to take shape in the Song dynasty and became increasingly popular and further developed in the following dynasties, and dance as a separate performance art largely survives in folk traditions. In more recent times, the art of dance in China has enjoyed a resurgence, and modern developments in Chinese dances are continuing apace.
Many of the traditional dances have a long history. These may be folk dances, or dances that were once performed as rituals or as an entertainment spectacle, and some may have been performed in the imperial court. Among the best-known of the Chinese traditional dances are the Dragon dance and Lion dance, and both dances were known in earlier dynasties in various forms. A form of lion dance similar to today's lion dance was described as early as the Tang Dynasty, the modern form of the dragon dance however may be a more recent development.
In some of the earliest dances recorded in China, dancers may have dressed as animal and mythical beasts, and during the Han Dynasty, some forms of the dragon dance were mentioned. The Dragon dances of Han Dynasty, however, do not resemble modern form of the dance. Dragon dances mentioned include a dance performed during a ritual to appeal for rain at time of drought as Chinese dragon was associated with rain, acts in the baixi variety shows where performers dressed up as a green dragon playing a flute, and acts where fish turned into a dragon. Modern Dragon Dance uses light-weight structure manipulated by a dozen or so of men using poles at regular intervals along the length of the dragon, and some forms of the dragon can be very long and involve hundreds of performers. There are more than 700 different dragon dances in China.
The lion dance has been suggested to have been introduced from outside China as lion is not native to China. Suggested origin of the dance include India and Persia, although some have also proposed a native Chinese origin. A detailed description of a lion dance appeared during the Tang Dynasty and it was then recognized as a foreign import, but the dance may have existed in China as early as the third century AD. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties it had association with Buddhism. A version of lion dance resembling modern lion dance was described by Tang poet Bai Juyi in his poem "Western Liang Arts" (西凉伎), where the dancers wear a lion costume made of a wooden head, a silk tail and furry body, with eyes gilded with gold and teeth plated with silver, and ears that moves. There are two main forms of Chinese Lion Dance: the Northern Lion and Southern Lion. A form of the Lion Dance is also found in Tibet where it is called the Snow Lion Dance.
Folk dances are important historically in the development of dance in China, some of the earliest dances in court rituals and ceremonies may have evolved from folk dances. Rulers from various dynasties collected folk dances, many of which eventually became court dances. However, at various times there had also been antipathy towards some folk dances and some emperors attempted to ban them.
Many of the folk dances are related to harvest and hunting and the ancient gods associated with them. For example, the Constellation Dance was performed to procure as much seed grain as there are stars in the sky, while the Harpoon Dance was associated to Fuxi who according to the mythology gave the Han people fish net, and the Plough Dance was connected to Shennong, the god of agriculture.
Some examples of Chinese folk dance:
There are many minority groups in China and each have their own dances that reflect their culture and way of life. A few examples of their dances:
In the entertainment centres called wazi during the Song Dynasty, various theatrical forms flourished and Chinese opera began to take shape, and dance started to become merged into opera. Dances such as "Dance Judgement" (舞判, also called the Dance of Zhong Kui, 跳鐘馗) became opera pieces in the Ming Dynasty, and dances of the Song Dynasty such as Flapping the Flag (撲旗子). Other dances found in opera include the Sword Dance. Chinese opera became very popular by the Yuan Dynasty, and dances became absorbed into opera over the following centuries.
Most early records of dances in China were ritual or ceremonial dances, and these dances formed the yayue which were considered to be of great importance in the court. These dances have largely disappeared from modern Han Chinese culture, although ritual dances are still found in some folk traditions and the cultures of ethnic minorities in China.
According to Lüshi Chunqiu, during the time of Emperor Yao, a dance was created as an exercise for the people to keep healthy after a prolonged spell of wet weather. Traditionally some Chinese dances may also have connection with the martial arts that were used to train fighting skills as well as for fitness, and some martial art exercises such as Tai chi or Qigong are similar to a choreographed dance. In modern China, it is common to find people using dance as a form of exercise in parks.
The first ballet school in China, Beijing Dance School, was established in 1954 with Dai Ailian as the principal and staffed by some outstanding Russian teachers, including Pyotr Gusev who instituted the Russian training system. In the following years ballets such as Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet were performed. The National Ballet of China was founded on the last day of 1959 as the Experimental Ballet Company of the Beijing Dance School. During the Cultural Revolution under the control of Madame Mao, Revolutionary Model dramas came to the fore, and the repertory 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 the classical Western ballets resurrected, and also broadened its range to include more modern ballets from around the world.
Other ballet companies in China:
Many dances presented as traditional in theatres and television are modern imagination of ancient dances using modern choreography, for example the famous Rainbow-Feathered Dress Dance of the Tang Dynasty.
Western ballroom dancing became popular in the 20th century, previously it would not have been permissible for men and women from respectable families to dance together. It was popular in the 1940s Shanghai nightclubs, and early Communists leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were also avid Soviet-style ballroom dancers. Ballroom dancing however later disappeared after the Cultural Revolution to be replaced by massive group dances such as yangge dance. Ballroom dances however reappeared after the liberalisation of China later in the century, and it is now commonly found performed by many people in public parks in the morning as exercise.
During the Persian New Year of Newruz, a lion dance used to be performed by young boys, some of the naked it seems, who were sprinkled with cold water. They were thus supposed to drive out evil forces and the cold of the winter.
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