Thanks to years of marketing, soaring budgets, and an international media spotlight, the year 2008 has become synonymous with China and, more specifically, the Beijing Olympics. The upcoming games have piqued interest in rising power, yet some believe that the truest voice of China's past—and future—is best seen outside its borders.
That's the belief of the Divine Performing Arts company, a New York-based group of classical dancers and musicians who hope to breath new life into China's ancient cultural, artistic, and moral traditions—traditions which were all but completely destroyed under Communist rule.
The company, which began to coalesce only five years ago, now consists of hundreds of artists, including the top-ranked Chinese classical dancers in the world and virtuoso musicians.
It got its start in 2004 at New Tang Dynasty Television's Chinese New Year Spectacular, and from modest beginnings, it has grown meteorically. This year, the company will tour to over 60 cities around the world, performing in front of over 600,000 people.
Accompanied by an orchestra that combines Eastern and Western musical styles, the Divine Performing Arts performs dances ranging from ethnic Mongolian and Tibetan dances, dances of the royal courts, narrative dances depicting ancient Chinese legends, as well as some performances that use art to tackle contemporary issues in Mainland China, such as human rights.
Culture, Not Communism
If one wants to know what makes these performances so unique, the people who make up the company are the place to start.
What sets these artists apart—be they dancers, designers, choreographers—is the profound affinity they share for China's traditional culture. These are people who have gone to great lengths to not just study, but also immerse themselves in China's ancient traditions. Many of the artists make an active practice of things like meditation, or practicing "mindful speech" and rightfulness—traits cultivated by China's sages of the past. These are far more than just world-class artists.
In China under communist rule, traditional culture has been assaulted and denounced for decades. The decade spanning 1966–76 witnessed Mao Zedong's "Cultural Revolution" unleash Red Guard soldiers on every possible vestige of China's traditional past—from Confucius' temple to Buddha statues, calligraphers, and libraries. The motto of the day was "Smash the old world!"
China's rich cultural traditions were seen as an obstacle to the ruling Communist Party's legitimacy: whereas traditional culture esteemed traits like kindness, harmony, and piety, Marxism-Leninism celebrated violence, atheism, "class struggle."
Thus it was the arts, and their performers, had their roots severed to such a severe extent.
But if this weren't enough, insult has been added to injury under communist rule: traditional culture was recycled, with macabre twists. Traditional operas, plays, and stories were recreated to serve Mao Zedong's political ends; what remnants of Chinese culture survived were masticated and re-engineered by the Party. Even today on Chinese state-run television you might see the bizarre spectacle of soldiers dancing—in full military regalia—a hybrid dance part Qing Dynasty ballet, part Maoist propaganda.
That is why the Divine Performing Arts shows like are more than just a breath of fresh air; it's a fresh start for China. In the Divine Performing Arts' shows, gone are the red flags of Chinese communism. Gone are the pirouetting People's Liberation Army soldiers. Gone are all those lyrics crafted to stir patriotism.
Instead, Divine Performing Arts seeks to serve up China's best traditional arts in all their glory, vigor, and spiritual robustness.
You could say, too, that the show's artists and creators know what it is not as well. Many of them, such as the company's orchestra conductor Mr. Rutang Chen, went through the pain and humiliation of the Cultural Revolution.
He and his wife were separated and sent to the countryside to be "reformed" through hard labor—all for the crime of being artists who played the Cello and Flute. When they were allowed to play their instruments again in China's leading Central Symphony Orchestra of China, all music had to be scrapped in favor of patriotic songs. (Other orchestras were disbanded altogether.)
Decades later, in 2000, Chen's son was nearly beaten to death by police for having traditional Chinese spiritual beliefs in Falun Gong. His wife, too was arrested by communist authorities in 2000 for adhering to Falun Gong. For the Chens and others, the Divine Performing Arts shows are a new beginning, one "outside of communist culture" they say.
"It distills what our ancestors believed," Samuel Zhou, one of New Tang Dynasty TV's directors says, "that goodness is rewarded, that life is sacred, and that ultimately, justice prevails."
It's a message that seems to be getting through—the Divine Performing Arts have struck a powerful chord with audiences everywhere.
Even inside mainland China, where the Divine Performing Arts remains barred, numerous anecdotal accounts reveal that market vendors can't sell copies of Divine Performing Arts performances quickly enough. And that's big news, for the Divine Performing Arts represents not just a revival of interest in Chinese classical arts, but also the acceptance of a message about justice, humanity, and freedom from repression.