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Dance in Chinese Culture

This is an excerpt from Dance Cultures Around the World With HKPropel Access by Lynn Frederiksen & Shih-Ming Chang.

By Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn E. Frederiksen

20th-Century Political Turmoil

In the crucible of war that defined 20th century China, new concepts of national and international identity crystallized around traditional folk forms—both Han and minority—and later drew on classical traditions, as well. The result was an engine of creativity and virtuosity that presented vividly on the world stage while solidifying political power in China. Factors as immediate as the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and as widespread as World War II influenced the trajectory of dance in the region.

The Japanese invasion brought out a huge patriotic response from artists throughout the country and abroad who devoted their expertise to supporting the national interest. Among them was Madame Dai Ailian 戴爱莲 (1916-2006), born in Trinidad to Chinese parents and trained in ballet and modern dance in London.

Though she arrived in China for the first time in 1941, Madame Dai spoke of her journey as “coming back home.” Her cross-cultural experiences would inform her life’s work and propel her to become the “mother of dance” in modern China (Wilcox, 16). The commitment of Madame Dai and countless others helped the Chinese prevail in the war with Japan, but fractures widened between the two political parties in China—the Kuomintangzhengfu (KMT; Nationalist Government Party) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With the Japanese surrender in 1945, the parties were no longer held together in facing a common enemy, and China was riven by civil war.

Chinese Civil War

The Chinese victory over Japan that marked the start of the civil war further complicated cross-cultural heritages of dance in the region. The island of Taiwan (Formosa) was returned to Chinese rule in 1945 after 50 years of Japanese occupation and cultural influence—influence that included Western dance forms. Then in 1949, after Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (1893-1976) led the CCP to establish the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mainland, the KMT government, led by Chiang Kai-Shek 蔣中正 (1887-1975), relocated to Taiwan.

From this point onward, Chinese dance followed different trajectories on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, although both pathways emerged from the same Chinese dance history (Chang and Frederiksen, 40).

The war and its aftermath were not only a manifestation of Chinese politics, but also of cross-cultural interchange and turmoil involving China, Japan, and Korea most immediately, but also England, Germany, Russia, the United States, and more nations. The international elements in the work of Madame Dai and other artists show how the currents of politics, colonialism, and commerce flow through 20th-century Chinese dance.More critically, the outcome of the war and the subsequent political restructuring of China turned, in part, on the Communist party’s effective use of the arts—particularly dance—as propaganda.

New Yangge/Struggle Yangge
During the Second Sino-Japanese War, a dance form—new yangge or struggle yangge 扭秧歌—was developed out of traditional yangge into a highly effective propaganda tool. The comic characters and ribald sections in traditional yangge were replaced with elements extolling the virtues of workers, peasants, and soldiers who supported the revolution, though the dance form and technique retained its folk origins. While new yangge was specifically crafted to meet the needs of the new government, other dance forms would prove equally significant in the early years of the PRC.

Postwar Developments in Chinese Dance
The 1950s proved to be a very productive time for the arts in China. Wuju 舞剧, or dance dramas, were created and modeled the process of pulling together many different cultural forms: ballet, modern, folk dance, and more.

Dance academies were developed and supported by the government after 1949 to direct the growth of dance as a national art form, firmly wedded to socialist ideologies. The national curriculum first developed at Beijing Dance School—predecessor to the Beijing Dance Academy—had both Chinese and European dance tracks. The former encompassed Chinese Han and minority folk dances, as well as classical opera dance. The latter covered ballet and other Western forms (Wilcox, 75). Aspects of all these were woven into the new wuju dance dramas.

With government support and training through national academies, such as the Central Academy of Drama (led by Ouyang Yuqiang and Madame Dai), performance ensembles around the nation were soon creating dance dramas for both national and international stages (Wilcox, 103).

Films of these performances extended the reach of the dance far beyond the stage itself—a most fortunate process, given that disaster loomed for the newly blossoming Chinese dance field. These films would later aid in the recovery of Chinese dance following systematic destruction of the arts and artists during the Cultural Revolution.


Dance During the Cultural Revolution: 1966-1976
Mao instigated the Cultural Revolution after the disastrous results of The Great Leap Forward (1958-1960)—a failed effort to industrialize agriculture that caused massive famine and over 30 million deaths. He sought to recapture the spirit of the Communist victory and reverse what he saw as growing stratification in society. From traditional folk festivals to Chinese opera, all arts and literature that harkened back to feudal systems or times of the dynasties were summarily dismissed, including dance that integrated Chinese folk and classical forms.

Even new yangge was purged from the culture. In place of the exiled performing arts, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing 江青 (1914-1991) dictated the creation and dissemination of the Eight Model Works, or yangbanxi 样板戏—the only form of performing arts permitted anywhere in the nation over the entire decade.

The Eight Model Works included two “modern revolutionary ballets.” The formats for these works—contemporary dress and themes, Western staging elements, and Western ballet technique—were the only permitted formats throughout the country. These ballets—and only these ballets—were performed as staged full-length works, excerpts for smaller productions, competitions, and films that permeated the entire nation. Yangbanxi served as propaganda tools and to identify dissenters; your loyalty to the party was suspect if you did not fully embrace the performances. The two ballets—Red Detachment of Women and White-Haired Girl—depicted real-life stories of women in 20th-century China to promote Communism. These works proved how powerful the arts could be when wielded as a method of social control, inserting political propaganda directly into the daily lives and emotions of an entire nation’s population.


Chinese Ancient Standards Dance
After the Cultural Revolution finally ended in 1976, schools and performance ensembles were reassembled by those who had survived the decade of repression. Dances integrating Chinese classical and folk forms returned to the stages, joining the ballet performances that now could diversify far beyond the strict limits of yangbanxi. Using films, written documents, photographs, and memories held in the bodies of dancers and choreographers, innovative works from the 1950s and early 1960s were revived and transformed at the request of the government. New techniques and teaching practices were also being developed during this time.

One such development was Zhongguogudianwu 中国古典舞, which incorporates training methods from Chinese opera, martial arts, Western ballet, and modern dance. The direct translation of Zhongguogudianwu is “Chinese classical dance,” but the term literally means “Chinese ancient standards dance” and was developed as a universal national form to incorporate Western scientific methods with Chinese classical dance training. Zhongguogudianwu’s versatile dancers could meet or exceed the demands of both contemporary and Chinese ancient standards dance. Although it was met with skepticism when first introduced, Zhongguogudianwu’s highly effective training system eventually was widely embraced both in China and abroad.

Paths to Contemporary Dance

In mainland China, exposure to Western modern dance started as far back as the early 1900s, when such modern dance pioneers as Isadora Duncan and Denishawn toured the world. However, because the aesthetics and functionality of dance in China differed from that in the West, modern dance in its Western form was slow to take hold in the region. Political alliances and conflicts helped shape developments in dance. For example, the first professional modern dance company in Hong Kong emerged in the late 1970s, while the city was still under British rule and more receptive to this Western import. In mainland China, modern dance slowly became accepted over time after the government’s Open Door policy was enacted in 1978. Spurred by cultural exchanges with Western dance companies and schools, Chinese modern dance companies began appearing on the mainland in the 1990s. On Taiwan, dancers explored new vocabularies sparked by early 20th-century forays into Japanese and European modern dance, and by Western dance company performances in Taiwan during the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor). Inspired to study abroad in the United States and elsewhere, the dancers then returned home to start their own companies. From the 1970s onward, many modern dance companies emerged in the region and continue to flourish into the 21st century.


While cross-cultural exchange and scholarship has grown tremendously in the 21st century, dance has always activated these interactions and continues to do so, now aided by rapidly changing technologies. Thanks to global travel and the internet, young people everywhere have access to a multitude of dance forms—ballroom, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and many more. (These forms are fully present in mainland China and Taiwan, though their popularity might not always align with government objectives. For example, recent censorship of hip-hop by the mainland China government indicates that enforcement of moral codes still guides government actions regarding artistic expression.) In addition to affecting the dissemination of dance, new technologies, such as virtual reality, are sometimes woven in the dances themselves, generating videos of hybrid choreographies that proliferate on social media. And in another arts–technology interaction, lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic sparked innovative uses of the virtual realm to share dance around the world.

Cultural Highlight

A Precious Friendship With Professor Kefen Wang and Madame Dai Ailian

I was born and raised in Taiwan, so when I first set foot in China in 1998, I knew no one. All I had to guide me was a book written by Professor Kefen Wang, the premier dance historian in China. On arriving in Beijing, I went to Beijing Dance Academy, hoping to find her there, but instead I was given her phone number. When I called introducing myself and my hopes for interviewing her, she immediately invited me to her home for dinner. We ate together in her tiny kitchen as if we were old friends. Through Professor Kefen Wang, I had the privilege of befriending both Madame Dai Ailian and the highly regarded choreographer Zhang Jigang, and later of hosting them in my Ohio home when they visited the United States. Over a decade, I visited them in China frequently and also invited Professor Wang to give lectures in Ohio. When Madame Dai stayed in my home with my family for a week, she shared stories of her life and loves, and also told me how she hoped to host the Laban Notation conference in Beijing one last time before she was too old to do it. And Mr. Zhang made special arrangements for me to videotape minority dances in the high mountains of Yunnan province.

I feel so fortunate to have known these three wonderful people as friends and mentors. Even though Professor Wang and Madam Dai are now both deceased, they remain vibrant in my memory. I will never take for granted the privilege and honor I was given, all through that first meeting with Professor Wang. Thank you, Wang Laoshi. You and Madam Dai are forever in my heart. (Written by Shih-Ming Li Chang)

More Excerpts From Dance Cultures Around the World With HKPropel Access