All but lost in the East, the essence of an age-old culture rises in the West. This is Part 7 of a nine-part series that explores traditional Chinese culture to reveal a deeper understanding of the genius of New York-based classical Chinese dance company Shen Yun Performing Arts.
An Introduction to Shen Yun Props
Swishing, spinning, and clapping in the hands of Shen Yun’s dancers are various ingenious props, designed to visually and aurally enhance the stories they tell through choreography. Each year, Shen Yun Performing Arts brings a new program to stages all over the world, and each dance number is a snapshot of a moment in Chinese cultural history. Below are some of the ways props have been used to transform dancers into characters from China’s ancient past.
What Makes a Lady
In Imperial courts, female members of the elite were distinguished by their elegant dress. In the Qing Dynasty court, a Manchurian woman wore high-platform shoes and an elaborate headdress that lent her a noble bearing and an even, stylized gait. To highlight their beauty, ladies carried dainty silk handkerchiefs that swayed with each step and emphasized their elegant gestures.
Long, draping sleeves on ladies garments, typical of Tang Dynasty couture, also act as props in the same way. As ladies open and close their arms in dance, the brightly colored sleeves produce a tableau-like effect on stage and mimic the luxury of the court.
Whereas in some pieces female dancers portray the high elegance of court life, in others they come back as sprightly folk performers. In a piece called Forsythia in Spring, dancers spin beaded orange handkerchiefs on their fingertips and toss them open into the air. Together, dancers and handkerchiefs produce the effect of flowers blossoming in the countryside.
Together, dancers and handkerchiefs produce the effect of flowers blossoming in the countryside.
Fans are another popular aid in classical Chinese dance. They can be silken, feathered, or furnished with long strips of flowing fabric. When dancers become water fairies, they carry ombré-dyed blue silk fans that shimmer like a waterfall when waved. In a dance titled Plum Blossoms, dancers carry pink fans that explode open at the end of the piece like plum flower buds in midwinter.
What Makes a Monk
Chinese legends often depict figures carrying gourds—divine doctors used them when treating patients; Tieguai Li, one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, always had a golden gourd slung over his shoulder; and the eccentric monk Ji Gong never let his wine gourd leave his side. The drunk monk Lu Zhishen, who starred in a 2011 Shen Yun dance, had a gourd strapped to his hip. Chang’e, who featured in a 2007 Shen Yun number, drank a magic potion from a gourd and flew to the moon as a result.
The gourd is a type of climbing plant from the Cucurbitaceous family, which also includes squash and melon. Ancient people fashioned gourds into snuff powder bottles and flower vases. They were also used as containers for water, medicine, and liquor. Bottle gourds have the ability to preserve the taste of wine for a very long time.
A Taoist whisk is another common prop to denote a spiritual man. Many Shen Yun dance dramas depict an elderly Taoist sage, with white hair and a trailing beard, teaching his disciples while brandishing a long whisk made of hemp and animal hair bound to a wooden handle. Taoist priests and monks carry whisks during their spiritual wanderings. Zen Buddhist abbots also wield them when giving sermons. The whisk thus symbolizes the majesty and solemnity of spiritual teaching.
In Taoist culture, whisks are believed to have the power to sweep away one’s worldly desires and carnal thoughts, imparting a sense of transcending the mortal realm. Another interpretation portrays demons and evil spirits as the filth of the world, and Taoist whisks as magical instruments with the power to exorcise them.
What Makes a Warrior
Nothing announces the power and majesty of the Imperial army like the boom of a war drum. With such a majestic sound that could be heard from afar, war drums became critical for galvanizing an army’s morale. Different beats guided the soldiers into different formations, with one rhythm for “attack” and another for “retreat,” for instance.
Continued: No longer a tool of war …
No longer a tool of war, battle drums have since become a form of folk art; their powerful, resounding beat still rouses an exhilarating heroic spirit. These Chinese drums are played with straightforward rhythms and clearly defined dynamics. They are essentially used to express the spirit of the Chinese people.
The shell of Chinese drums is often made of wood, and the drumhead of animal-skin. Generally, the larger the diameter of the drum, the lower its pitch. For various sound effects, drummers will strike different parts of the drum, such as the rim, where the skin meets the wood, the drum sides, or even the metal studs used to keep the leather in place.
Other drums that are not confined to the battlefield are waist drums and octagonal hand drums.
The waist drum, hourglass in shape, is played in front of the abdomen and strapped to the waist by colorful silk ribbons, allowing the drummers great mobility as they dance.
The waist drum, hourglass in shape, is played in front of the abdomen and strapped to the waist by colorful silk ribbons, allowing the drummers great mobility as they dance. These Chinese drums mostly play upbeat rhythms, especially around harvest time.
The eight sides of the octagonal hand drum represent the eight flags used by the ruling Manchu ethnicity during the Qing Dynasty and are especially popular in the Chinese Northeast.
Aside from drums, what set warriors apart are, of course, weapons. Chinese military weaponry is a vast category with hundreds of types of weapons, many of which do not have a Western counterpart. In Shen Yun programs, historical and mythological stories sometimes feature a traditional weapon, and famous heroes usually possess a particularly powerful weapon—often associated with magical powers.
For example, the Monkey King (from Journey to the West) has a cudgel with a magical ability to transform from the size of a needle to a towering column. The Green Dragon Crescent Blade of Guan Yu (from Romance of the Three Kingdoms) can slash anything, helping the mighty general win countless battles.
Common people or warriors have more familiar weapons, such as sabers, straight swords, bows, spears, and staffs.
Shen Yun devises countless props to bring to life the tropes in Chinese culture, and each draws on the rich traditions of the Han people. Yet Shen Yun also features dances that originate from minority ethnic groups in China.
For instance, the Mongolian Bowl Dance (2007) shows the way Mongolian women greet guests by balancing bowls on top of their heads as they dance. Chopsticks Zest (2008) transforms ordinary bundles of chopsticks into rhythmic instruments, following the Mongolian custom wherein men strike the chopsticks-turned-percussion instruments against their bodies, producing a distinctive, vigorous beat.
Compiled with permission from Shenyunpreformingarts.com/learn.
The Epoch Times is a proud sponsor of Shen Yun Performing Arts, which will perform an all-new 2012 program at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater January 11–15. To learn more about Shen Yun Performing Arts and Chinese culture, view a calendar of Shen Yun’s 2012 world tour, and for ticket information, please visit www.shenyunperformingarts.org.