Review of Chinese Dance: In the Vast Land and Beyond
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Review of Chinese Dance: In the Vast Land and Beyond

Chinese Dance: In the Vast Land and Beyond
by Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynne E. Frederiksen; foreword by Emily Wilcox

Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2016
248 pp., illus. 38 b/w. Paper, $34.00
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7631-6

Reviewed by
Jonathan Zilberg
February 2018

Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn Frederickson provide here a simple and easy to read introduction to Chinese dance and its history. Condensing 5,000 years of Chinese dance from its shamanistic origins through the various dynastic periods, they show for instance how Confucian ideals endure physically across time in the precision of structured dance. The core of the book is built around seven interviews with seven Chinese women dancers working in the US, namely Lily Cai, Nai-Ni Chen, Lorita Leung, Yunyu Wang, Yin Mei, Jin-Wen Yu and Yu Wei. It is followed by a brief and wide ranging chapter on how different dance is to this day in China specifically in terms of why people dance and for whom, when, and where and concludes with an even briefer three page chapter explaining the reasoning behind the annotated database of materials in hyperlinks available at the excellent website, http://chinesedance.site.wesleyan.edu.

The website, partially password protected, provides access to a wealth of information including photographs, videos, interviews and other materials. The database even includes details such as the props and costumes needed, keeping in mind that not only are those highly codified but so is their precise use. As an evolving platform and archive to which readers are encouraged to contribute, it is an excellent model for building inter-active multi-media educational resources in the study of cross cultural dynamics.

The book begins with an impassioned forward by Emily Wilcox titled “A Manifesto for Demarginalization.” There she argues that US dance education programs need to more widely incorporate non-Western and non-elite dance forms. Her call for change is a strident criticism of cultural hegemony in US dance culture and institutions as manifested in the “suppression” of minority dance. It deserves to be widely read. In that context Wilcox revisits the history of the reception of Chinese dance in the US since the mid 19th century and shows how there exists a repeating pattern of criticism in which Western standards are being inappropriately used to evaluate Chinese traditions.

Chinese Dance follows on two other scholarly books on the topic, namely Choreographic Asian America by Yutian Wong (2010) and Kinesthetic City: Dan and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces by SanSan Kwan (2013). [2] In looking forward to future publications on Asian dance, the photographs of dancers in performance context used in this book such as those by Yu Gen-Quan, Shen Jin-Sheng, Rachel Cooper, Suling Chou, Carol Rosegg and Marty Sohl, deserve special mention for their visual excellence. Indeed, they are so compelling that a related book (or web site) purely of Chinese dance photography would surely be in order. Finally, when one considers that the first modern state dance company in China was only formed in 1992 and followed by the first private dance company in 1999 one can best appreciate how far apart the Western and Chinese dance worlds are and how recent is this emerging field of study.

Li Chang and Frederiksen’s book should be used as a primer in an expanded field of dance education because it so effectively deals with the issues of cultural hegemony in dance and how to appreciate the fundamental differences between Western and non-Western dance traditions, in this case, Chinese. The book has been written with a far more general audience in mind than a purely academic one. It is so readable that it could equally be used as a high school text for the social sciences as in anthropology, theater or dance classes in college. For myself, the most interesting parts of the book are to be found in the lengthy and detailed notes. At that level, this book stands out as very different to Tommy Hahn’s Sensational Knowledge (2007) which provides an interesting example of a more theoretically complex discussion of Japanese dance. [3]

Chinese Dance provides an excellent example of the time-tested tradition of using interviews as contexts for artists to talk about their works and lives. In fact, the main body of this book is centered in the artists’ statements and interviews providing us with insight into the personal experiences of the seven Chinese women dancers mentioned above. The book is particularly strong in how it reveals cultural mistranslations and conundrums in the ways in which Westerners often misperceive Chinese dance with its conflation of form and content. For instance, as the primacy of form is to reinforce social hierarchy, the status quo, the dancer’s motivation is external rather than internal. Herein form and content are very closely tied in with contemporary history and politics; in fact, that is its purpose. And as for virtuosity, the primary concern with form is as meaning in which through stylization the dancer’s technical precision is of the essence. All this occurs within a political framework within which a dominance of form is a dominance of meaning. Furthermore, there is a very different history of relationship between the dancers and the audience which has to be taken into account.

These factors significantly complicate the cross-cultural appreciation of the form. Take for example the cultural conundrums presented such as the “smell of the circus” in the Chinese Swan Lake production. [4] Such details are fascinating because they are so revealing of the inter-cultural or trans-cultural encounter. They highlight how without having such knowledge one cannot appreciate Chinese dance on its own terms. Consider also how important scale is in Chinese dance aesthetics where precision is required so as to create uniformity in order to achieve a mass effect - so much so that “where scale is concerned, there is a quantum difference regarding what is valued in dance . . .” (p. 73).

The book is unencumbered by theory and complex language. Ultimately, the information in this book, significantly supplemented by that provided on the web site, is aimed at young dancers of the next generation. And there, considering the sheer magnitude of the Chinese mainland and Diaspora population, this book has an enormous potential use value in this racially belligerent and culturally divisive period in American history. In that this book serves an all important social function. It promotes an understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture and history at the same time as it critiques cultural hegemony in American dance. Clearly this book looks to the future and there, what is happening with young Chinese dancers is no doubt also happening if very differently in other worlds of dance in Africa, India, Latin America and elsewhere. In short, Chinese Dance will help all dancers to look more consciously inwards into their own hegemonic and counter-hegemonic dance traditions and outwards into others.

References

  1. Daphne Pi-Wei, (2006). Operatic China: Staging Chinese identity Across the Pacific. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
  2. Yutian Wong, (2010). Choreographing Asia America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. SanSan Kwan (2010). Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Tommie Hahn, (2007). Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, Place: Press. For a review of Hahn, see Jonathan Zilberg, Leonardo vol. 43, No.2, April 2010, pp. 191-192.
  4. See “Amazing Chinese Swan Lake Ballet,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sMc-p19FIk.