Chinese Dance — Ancient Art Form Across Time and Space
Chinese Dance is an ancient art form across time and space, from the Neolithic era till today, for people to worship heaven and earth, communicate with deities and spirits, praise exceptional accomplishments, reproduce grand and memorable events, tell fascinating legends and stories, celebrate happy occasions, and express joy and sorrows.
Painted Pottery Dancer Figurine of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Origin of Chinese Traditional Dance — Mysterious and Solemn Ritual Dance
Ritual Dances that originated during the ancient era are regarded as the earliest forms of dance in China.
Usually danced by Shaman (in Chinese Wu Zhu) or nobles with supreme power, ancient Ritual Dances in China had been performed to:
Pray for the well-being of states and people;
Show gratitude and praise for deities' blessings;
Invite deities to worship, guide, or communicate;
Appeal for rain and good harvests;
Exorcise evil spirits, demons, and ghosts.
Accompanied by music, Ritual Dance performers would hold different types of magical appliances or weapons, and wear special outfits and masks, to connect and communicate with nature and the surroundings.
Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) Painted Clay Dancer Figurine With Mask — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Some ancient Ritual Dances later evolved into religious dances in China, some inherited by successive imperial empires in worship ceremonies, and some disappeared in history.
More importantly, the spirit of wearing special costumes and masks to simulate nature, deities, and mythical creatures, has been well-inherited and formed some popular Chinese traditional dances, such as the Dragon Dance and Lion Dance.
Worship and Celebration — Dragon Dance and Lion Dance
Dragon Dance and Lion Dance are two famous Chinese traditional dances throughout history, which have been performed to pray and later to celebrate on important happy occasions and festivals.
Chinese Dragon or Loong, is a significant cultural icon of China, which symbolizes strength, bravery, invincibility, virtue, unity, intelligence, triumph, integrity, and auspiciousness,
Different types of Chinese dragons, in legends and folklore, are in charge of rain and water, and have been defeating evils and protecting humans.
Deity Flying Dragon Shape Brick of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — The Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Dragon Dance, a group of people imitating movements of flying dragons to appeal for rain, pray for good harvest and blessing, and seek protection from drought and flood, has been one of the most important folk performances since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).
Materials, performing times, movements, colors, and lengths of dragons on Dragon Dances differ according to history and geology.
Dragon Dance Performance with Dragon Chasing the Peal, Photo by Jiangnan Qingfeng.
In ancient times, Lion had been named Suan Ni, a mystical creature that is believed a son of the Chinese Dragon, strong, quiet, peaceful, and powerful.
After lions were introduced to China through the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), their appearances resemble descriptions of the mystical Suan Ni in ancient legends, hence people named lions as Suan Ni, and regarded them as representative of auspiciousness, safety, and strength.
Since then, performing the Lion Dance (mainly including northern and southern lion styles) has been an important activity for Chinese people to pray for good luck and celebrate festivals and joyful events.
Lion Dancers in Lion Dance Costumes in Chinese New Year Celebrations
Glorious Court Dance and Acrobatics
Since Xia Dynasty (2070 BC — 1600 BC), court dances had been performed for royals, to worship, pray, divine, eulogize, and entertain.
Later in Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), strict Li Yue Culture was established, which, based on hierarchy, regulated a series of rites regarding the national ceremony, etiquette, social system, music, and dance.
As for Court Dance, costumes and numbers of dancers, styles of songs and musical instruments, chosen of dancers and music on each occasion, all have strict rules.
Later in Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC), this strict Li Yue system gradually fell apart with the kings of Zhou losing power, when court dances became a means to entertain and praise royals.
The most famous and outstanding Court Dance in China is Nichang Yuyi, about an emperor's trip to the fabulous moon palace and meeting mystical deities there.
Nichang Yuyi Dance in Show "Yang Gui Fei" or "Lady Yang", Lead Dancer Zhou Jie.
Meanwhile, folk dances began to thrive, as well as Variety Art that includes conjuring, fire breathing, sword swallowing, acrobatics, wrestling, martial arts show, horsemanship, juggling, etc.
These various folk performances are named Baixi and had been performed in both royal courts and streets.
Baixi Performace on Imperial Banquet Mural, Unearthed from Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220).
Dance in China Across Time and Space — Chinese Classical Dance
Chinese Classical Dance is a branch formed in the 1950s, by combining and reproducing the movements from historical relics, frescos, traditional opera, martial art, and folk dance, while the themes, costumes, sets, and music are about ancient history, legend, and mythology.
Based on main learning resources, Chinese Classical Dance has developed three branch schools:
Han Tang Dance
Chinese Classical Dance "Tang Palace Banquet", Based on Cultural Relics and History of the Tang Dynasty, Directed by Chen Lin, Produced by Henan TV.
Based on Kunqu Opera or Kun Opera, is one of the most ancient and dominant Chinese Operas, since it originated in the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).
Today, it has been listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Chinese Classical Dance Performance "Caidiede Hongqiao", Kunqu Artist Shao Tianshuai, Lead Dancers Wang Yabin and Huang Chendi.
Famous Chinese Dancers in History
Today, it is impossible to see ancient dance performances from the past, hence, dancers in history obtained their well-established reputation mainly based on descriptions of historical records and literature.
There's no doubt that there were many good Chinese dancers in history, however, only a few of them left their names, not only because of their exceptional dancing achievements.
Xi Shi: A famous honey trap with stunning beauty and exceptional dancing skills, who was trained and sent to seduce the King of Wu (? — 473 BC).
Chinese Classical Dance "Dian Jiang Chun", Performed by Hua Xiaoyi.
Lady Qi (? — 194 BC): Favorite concubine of Emperor Liu Bang, who even planned to abolish the current crown prince for her, but failed. After the emperor passed away, Lady Qi and her son all got murdered cruelly.
Wei Zifu (? — 91 BC): Had been learning singing and dancing in a princess' mansion as a child, was chosen by Emperor Liu Che during the performance and became his second queen.
Chinese Classical Dance "Wuxing Chu Dongfang", Based on the "Five Stars Rise in the East" Culture Relic of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Produced by Henan TV.
Lady Li: One of the most favorite imperial concubines of Emperor Liu Che (156 BC — 87 BC), for her beauty and exceptional dancing talent.
Zhao Feiyan (45 BC — 1 BC): A professional dancer in a princess' mansion, won the heart of Emperor Liu Ao the first time she performed and later became his queen. Zhao Feiyan was extremely famous for her graceful dancing skills, she could dance like a flying swallow in a delicate crystal tray.
Chinese Classical Dance "Liren Xing", Based on Great Poet Du Fu's Poem that Describes Lady Yang and Her Familes' Extravagant Spring Outing, Performed by Chongqing Singing and Dancing Troupe, Produced by Henan TV.
Xie A'man (717 — 757): A professional court dancer, highly appreciated and frequently awarded by Emperor Li Longji and Lady Yang.
Lady Gongsun: A folk dancer of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), famous for her exceptional Sword Dance, and had been invited to perform for the emperor. Her dances had inspired famous calligraphers and painters and had been described and prized by the great poet Du Fu (712 — 770).
Styles of Chinese Dance
Props and Costumes of Dances in China
Based on main props and costumes, common Chinese Dances include Fan Dance, Ribbon Dance, Long Sleeve Dance, Umbrella Dance, Sword Dance, Lantern Dance, and Drum Dance.
Chinese Folk Dances
Chinese Folk Dances refer to performances that originated and popularize among common people, mostly performed at important festivals and happy occasions, to celebrate, pray for good weather and blessing, and exorcise evilness.
Besides Dragon Dance and Lion Dance, some famous regional Chinese Folk Dances include Donkey Dance, Boat Dance, Yang Ge, Ying Ge, Tai Ge, etc.
Yingge Performance of Chaoshan Culture.
Peacock Dance and Other Ethnic Group Dances
Throughout history, each ethnic group in China has developed expressive and brilliant dancing styles.
Peacock Dance of Dai People is an excellent representative, in which dancers simulate graceful dancings of beautiful peacocks, the auspicious bird that symbolizes beauty, benevolence, wisdom, peace, and happiness.
Accompanied by melodic local folk music, Peacock Dancers present elegant and graceful movements of peacocks, such as flying, wandering, eating, bathing, feather combing, relaxing, courting, etc.
Peacock Dance "Que Zhi Ling", Performed by Artist Yang Liping.
Square Dance — Modern Exercise Dance Culture
Chinese Exercise Dance, also named Square Dancing, Plaza Dancing, or Guangchang Wu, is one of the most popular and widely participated modern dances in China today.
Some Fun Facts About Chinese Square Dance
Mostly participate by middle-aged and retired people in groups, spontaneously;
Usually take place in squares, plazas, or spacious parks;
Music and dancing styles could be anything dancers like, usually dancing to catchy pop songs with strong beats;
The main purposes of Square Dancing are to exercise and socialize.
You Might Also Like: