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Art, China, Chinese, Chinese Culture, Culture, Dance, Performance, Story

The Essence of Classical Chinese Dance

By Zhang Tianliang, Special to The Epoch Times, Jul 26, 2007-Michelle Ren performing in her elective program during the International Chinese Classical Dance CompetitionFlash back to 1300 years ago. Emperor Zhong Zong 1 of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) is hosting a feast on January 30, in the year 707, at the Kunming Pool. With all officials of the royal court present, he asks the officials and literary scholars to each write a poem about the occasion, and to present the best poem to him.

The Emperor had a colorful tower built, and invites Shangguan Wan’er, a beauty known for her literary accomplishments, to select the best poem. Two famous poets of the time, Shen Quanqi and Song Zhiwen, are both present.

Ms. Shangguan wore a phoenix-shaped hairpin and an embroidered dress in a light fabric. She sat on the tower and her long sleeves hung down. The court assistants presented the poems. Ms. Shangguan read them and made comments on each. Those that did not meet her standards were thrown to the ground.

The officials looked up at her. As each piece drifted down from the tower, it was picked up to see who the author was. Shen Quanqi and Song Zhiwen, however, did not retrieve any pages, as each believed that his was the best. Shen said, “You and I have been rivals for a long time. This time, whoever wins should be considered the better poet. That will settle our dispute once and for all.” Song smiled and agreed.

Soon, Ms. Shangguan let go of another poem. It was Shen’s. She wrote her comments after the poem, “It looks like Shen and Song’s poems were comparable. However, the last two lines of Shen’s poem showed that he was at his wit’s end, yet Song’s poem had new ideas, as though a flock of birds just took to the sky. That’s why I thought Song’s poem was better.”

The officials read the two poems. They were well-written, with exquisite phrasing. However, Shen’s poem ended with, “This humble servant employs failed material.” while Song’s last two lines read, “No need to worry that the bright moon will fade; the pearl of the night is soon to arrive.” They all agreed with Ms. Shangguan’s comments.

Chinese culture focuses on the atmosphere. This permeates the areas of calligraphy, painting, chess, music, poetry, martial arts, and dance. Shen’s poem compared himself with “failed material,” and ended on a sad note. Song’s poem, on the other hand, introduced a new element with the arrival of the “pearl” after the moon went down. This showed his superior ability to add a new, higher meaning.

The NTDTV International Chinese Classical Dance Competition held earlier this month included many talented people with outstanding techniques. But in terms of the inner meanings of their movements, Ren Fengwu (Michelle Ren) was clearly the best.

Ms. Ren’s dance was based on the concept of a pure lotus flower in the Buddha’s pond. Her clothing was also white, symbolizing the sacredness and purity of the lotus. Her dance not only showed the realm of lotus flowers, but also reminded us of the solemnity and holiness of the Buddha’s Paradise. As the lotus flower fluttered in the breeze, we could hear the music of a different world and almost smell its fragrance. It brought peace of mind to the audience and won their respect. On subject selection alone, Ren was one step above the others.

Her perfect forms demonstrated her deep understanding of the theme. Her movements were soft and fluid, yet every form was defined and refreshing. Strength was shown in the silkiness of her moves. The transitions between positions were natural and smooth. She held a very steady standing leg stretch (please refer to this link for the movement (please visit to see video of this movement ), and then immediately executed a back flip with her hands supporting her on the ground.

This movement showed people sudden but inspiring change. When she danced, although the movements were dramatic, they made the audience feel calm. Her facial expression was peaceful and unaffected, as though she was not in a dance competition or pleasing the judges, but was only interpreting her understanding of lotus flowers through mature skills.

Even after she finished dancing, the energy and feelings from the dance were still in the air. The spirit of the dance was truly beyond the form.

Besides subject selection, Chinese culture also places importance on subtlety. Legend has it that Emperor Gao Zu 2 of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) initially didn’t have faith in Han Xin’s 3 ability to lead an army. The Emperor gave Han a very small piece of fabric and told him that he could lead as many soldiers as he could draw on the fabric. Instead of drawing soldiers, Han drew a running horse; the back half was hidden behind a wall, so only the first half was shown. One could see that the hands of the person riding the horse were holding a banner for a battle, even though the person himself could not be seen. Although Han had not drawn one complete person, the battle banner inferred that there were thousands of troops behind the rider.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), Emperor Hui Zong 4 held an examination for the Royal Art Academy. The test was to draw an ancient temple hidden deep in a mountain. The top prize went to a painting that showed layers upon layers of mountains. A monk was at the foot of the mountain, drawing water from a creek. Although the artist did not actually show an ancient temple, everyone could tell that the temple would naturally be found deep in the mountains.

The same principle applies to Chinese Classical Dance. If the movements are too similar to martial arts, ballet, or gymnastics, if they are too hard or too soft, or if the transition between the quiet and dramatic was too obvious, then the dance lacks the required subtlety.

Chinese culture has always encompassed many areas. When a person handwrites a character, or even makes one move, others can obtain all kinds of important information about this person. This is of course even truer in a classical art form such as dance. A dancer will reach a plateau if she is able to improve technical skills but lacks a deep understanding of the Chinese culture. If a dancer lacks personal cultivation and understanding, she will be unable to successfully portray characters from the Heavens or those who have good moral qualities, such as loyalty and chastity.

Although techniques in dance are important, improvement in one’s morality is what truly resonates with the kind nature of those in the audience. The journey of moral improvement is endless. The Tao School believes that “everyone can become wise emperors,” and the Buddha School believes that everyone can cultivate to become a buddha. This means everyone has the potential to be enlightened, just as every dancer is able to reach that high realm. However, the process is one of arduous cultivation. This is the same process that established the essence of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the foundations of the 5,000-year culture of the Chinese nation.

The process is an endless road, one that must be traveled by those who seek the highest realm in Chinese Classical Dance.

[1] Emperor Zhongzong, Tang Dynasty
[2] Emperor Gaozu, Han Dynasty
[3] General Han Xin
[4] Emperor Huizong, Song Dynasty

Original report from the Epochtimes 



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