Through the course of dynasty after dynasty, from the royal court to the battlefield, China’s 5000-year history has yielded a rich trove of cultural traditions and classical arts.
The detailed workmanship of a Ming vase or the architectural ingenuity of the Forbidden City can evoke great admiration, yet these objects provide only visual clues to understanding China’s history. They are unable to impart the inner meaning of the culture—the thoughts, feelings, and expressions of a people shaped by a long and magnificent history.
History has given this weighty responsibility to classical Chinese dance, which has been recognized as one of China’s greatest cultural treasures. Today, this art form passed down through the ages carries on its shoulders the preservation of the country’s traditional culture. To understand classical Chinese dance is to understand the history of China.
Dynastic rule has made China unique in our world’s history. Each dynasty had a distinct set of cultural traits and artistic forms that both built upon the previous dynasty’s artistic achievements and laid the foundation for those of the future.
This ever-changing cultural landscape continuously enriched, broadened, and tempered the dance form. From ancient dramas and plays to imperial court dances, folk dance, and martial arts, classical Chinese dance has incorporated the essence of each dynasty making it the most culturally complete interpretation of Chinese culture.
The Essence of the Dance
Classical Chinese dance is among the most enticing of visual spectacles. It consists of movements of precision, grace, and control, with some of the most difficult moves—tumbling, jumps, flips, and leaps—echoing the martial art techniques from ancient battlefields.
These alone make classical Chinese dance one of the most visually impressive forms of dance, yet they would be incomplete and superficial without the most important characteristic—a special feature called bearing. This bearing is at the very heart of classical Chinese dance and is something unique to the culture—a type of inner language that contains within it the most essential qualities of Chinese civilization.
Bearing can be described as the inner spirit that the dancer expresses through movement. It is an artistic feeling that arises from an innate understanding of the culture. Two people can perform the same movement, yet only the one who moves with an emphasis on inner meaning and spirit, with an understanding of the cultural significance of each turn of the hand or arc of the body, will carry this less tangible but crucial aspect in one’s performance.
Only with an emphasis on bearing can the dancers truly convey the inner meaning of the character, feeling, or emotion they are trying to express. It is in this bearing that classical Chinese dance carries the innate characteristics of the culture.
Reviving the Dance
Today, Shen Yun Performing Arts, a New York-based group generally regarded as the ambassador of the Middle Kingdom’s authentic traditional culture, is leading the revival of the nearly lost art form of classical Chinese dance.
Formed in 2006, Shen Yun has become a global phenomenon, selling out some of the world’s greatest theatres like the Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center in the U.S., and the U.K.’s London Coliseum.
With a mission to revive the divinely inspired culture of China and share it with the world, Shen Yun has experienced unparalleled, exponential growth, a result of both the company’s artistic integrity and a worldwide audience longing for authenticity.
The artists who comprise Shen Yun—for the most part Chinese living overseas—realized a revival was needed because the advent of communism in China all but sounded the death knell for the culture.
Various campaigns such as the Great Cultural Revolution devastated the traditional arts, and dance and performance were co-opted as a propaganda tool by the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, political ideology inundated with a philosophy of class struggle has become the norm for performances originating from the mainland.
However, while some of these performances may resemble classical Chinese dance in form and technique, they have lost the bearing, namely the inner meaning of the dance. They have become devoid of the traditional themes of classical Chinese dance—themes emphasizing virtues, such as benevolence, honour, etiquette, wisdom, and sincerity.
Since antiquity, these values have shaped each dynasty, giving birth to the dance and the artistic expression of the people.
Espousing these values, Shen Yun incorporates tales of China’s heroic figures into its story-based dance routines. Legendary figures like Mulan, the Monkey King, and Yue Fei are brought to life on stage, depicting the historical lessons and virtues that each embodied in their time.
Today Shen Yun stands out as a truly authentic representation of China’s traditional culture. Through meticulous research and a firm conviction that classical Chinese dance be kept in its purest form, Shen Yun has succeeded in bringing the essence of Chinese culture to the world, reviving and enriching this ancient art form that has been 5,000 years in the making.
Shen Yun Performing Arts will begin the Canadian leg of its international tour on Dec. 27. For more information visit: shenyun.com