A Look at the Different Journeys of a Divine Culture in
China and Abroad through Classical Chinese Dance
by Vina Lee
I was born in Mainland China in the early 1960s. My earliest memories coincide with the Cultural Revolution. I would occasionally overhear hushed adult conversations about some recent unfortunate incidents of suicidal hanging, beatings, or other violence. At such a tender young age, I could not make sense of those conversations, I just knew I had to be very careful when I left the house.
In those days, the only cultural entertainment programs in China were the eight ‘Peking Operas‘ and Chinese ballet shows that repeated the same propaganda, singing praises of the ‘glory and achievements’ of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. These were the so-called “Eight Revolutionary Model Shows.” The Chinese ballet entitled, The White-Haired Girl, was one such show. One act, “The North Wind Blows,” marked the beginning of my dance career. I was self-taught then, as I had watched both the film and live performances of the piece many times.
At that time, the “Eight Revolutionary Model Shows” were performed throughout the country and everyone from professional performing art troupes—also known as “song and dance ensembles” — to amateur propaganda teams, regardless of age or gender, knew these eight hyped shows. The shows had also infiltrated every aspect of ordinary people’s daily lives. An old Chinese saying, roughly translated, “Every household and individual knows it,” illustrates the case. Not only did everyone know them, they could also reenact and perform the pieces. But, it was not out of free will.
Before the end of the Cultural Revolution, I was admitted into a performance ensemble and began full-time studies in dance. My father had worked in the arts field, but was ultimately forced to change his career due to the unfavorable circumstances of the time. He was very hesitant about letting his daughter pursue a professional career in the arts. He knew that true art should reflect the genuine elevation of an artist’s moral character. Without virtue, art would not be art. However, no artist could pursue true art based on higher creative inner qualities in those days. If an artist were to express genuine feelings and emotions, such as kindness or honesty, the artist faced almost certain beating or imprisonment. However, if the artist cast aside their conscience and “sang praises for the Party,” he or she would be unworthy of being called “artist.”
I grew up in a society permeated with Communist Party propaganda. Slogans like “All the people in the world live in hellish misery, whilst we Chinese people are the most privileged, happiest people in the world,” or “Our greatest enemy is American imperialism,” were commonplace. We were taught to believe that without the Communist Party, it would be the end of us. I once asked my mother, “Why aren’t you a Party member? All the other kids’ moms are Party members.” My mother replied, “A person who is not a Party member is not necessarily a bad person.” Soon after, against her will, my mother applied to join the Party simply so that her daughter would be able to hold her head up amongst her peers. Years later, whenever this incident was brought up, she would musingly say, “If you hadn’t asked me that question, I would not have joined the Party.” A mother’s love for her children may be so selfless that she may willingly sacrifice her own feelings for their sake. Fortunately, soon after The Epoch Times published the editorial series, Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, my mother terminated her Party membership.
During the 1970s, the only available method of dance training in China was a mixture of classical Chinese dance and classical ballet. During that era, everything that existed was for the purpose of serving the Chinese Communist Party, and the importance of the Party was placed above all else. Art was no longer a manifestation of spiritual elevation, but reduced to a tool for glorifying the Party. Sports were no longer a form of recreation and entertainment for the people, but a means of helping the Communist Party gain a foothold on the international stage. By the 1970s, the hard work and effort of China’s renowned artists—many of whom had undergone traditional methods of training with Russian masters—were nearly wiped out by the fallout of Sino-Russian relations and the Cultural Revolution. Many were persecuted, many were exiled and sent away to rural labor camps, and many more were forced to turn to other professions. In a cultural climate of, “If the Party wants you dead, you will not live,” a handful of surviving artists blindly turned into the Party’s propaganda flunkies, as illustrated in the aforementioned “Eight Revolutionary Model Shows.”
From the Party’s slogan, “Make the past serve the present, make the foreign serve China,” emerged a mixture of classical Chinese dance and classical ballet. This mixed dance form lacked both the classical Chinese dance aspects of yun (inner feeling) with its vast range of difficult techniques, and the refined elegance of classical ballet’s movements, and the majestic beauty of the divine realm. Everything from the dance training routines to the Chinese ballet performances was filled to the brim with Communist propaganda and praise for the Party. The performances left people with a feeling of emptiness, the narratives and the performers’ acting reeked of insincerity. However, such was the state of the entire society and people had no choice but to numbly accept this as the norm.
Yet, the splendor of China’s 5,000 years of divinely inspired culture cannot be erased and remains in many aspects today. Classical Chinese dance has a history of thousands of years. The Chinese characters for “dance” and “martial arts” share the same pronunciation, “wu.” This is exemplary of the deep nuances and wonder of Chinese culture. Martial arts, traditionally used for self-defense and combat, have established movements and must not be altered to preserve their practical effects. Until today martial arts movements remained basically unchanged for thousands of years. In ancient times, warriors performed in the imperial courts. Those performances were for entertainment purposes, and the martial arts movements were adjusted accordingly, resulting in a form of dance. Classical Chinese dance is imbued with yun, or inner feeling, a characteristic unique to Chinese people. The expression of this distinctive feeling can be observed in every movement and gesture of the dancer. Classical Chinese dance was inspired and preserved throughdivine culture.
Modern-day gymnastics and acrobatics derived many difficult movements from the immensely expressive art form of classical Chinese dance which has a wide range of expressions that enable dancers to bring elaborate narratives and complex characters to life on stage. From masculinity to femininity, from smooth, flowing movements to structured movements, from long, extended movements to graceful forms, classical Chinese dance has a rich vocabulary.
When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, China entered the so-called “Opening of China” period. Some classical dance masters returned to teaching and tried to recapture the unique characteristics of Chinese dance. Although they could not completely escape the influence of the politicized mixed classical Chinese dance and classical ballet method in the fundamental training, they were able to develop relatively sophisticated teaching methods for shen yun, or inner bearing. They also thought the dance movements were extracted, developed, and evolved from martial arts, and from traditional Chinese xiqu (opera) and theatre. In reality the movements actually originated in China’s ancient divinely inspired culture.
During that period of time, Beijing Dance Academy commemorated its first group of graduates. I graduated in that class, and we majored in one of three different fields: classical Chinese dance, ballet, or choreography.
With the “Opening of China” policy aimed to introduce Western culture, interactions between the Chinese and the international dance community became more frequent. However, most of these communications revolved around ballet and modern dance. A small number of Chinese dance teachers ventured abroad, but the only knowledge they brought back was an obsessive admiration of contemporary dance elements. The Chinese dance community’s interest in these new foreign elements far exceeded its interest in classical Chinese dance. Many dancers turned their sights to contemporary dance. Ballet’s prominence also rose in China with Chinese ballet dancers frequently winning awards in international ballet competitions. Many talented dancers left China to advance their careers abroad. Society’s general lack of interest in classical Chinese dance forced a large number of excellent classical Chinese dancers to switch to other fields of dance such as ballet or contemporary dance, or early retirement.
Although the Chinese Communist Party seemingly welcomed Western ideas during the “Opening of China” period, it was still very worried about the potential threat this posed to Communist ideology. This resulted in a superficial acceptance of Western ideas that only allowed people to indulge in materialistic pursuits with strict prohibition on anything that touched upon religious or spiritual matters.
The Chinese dance community quickly mastered Western dance techniques, but they were unable to grasp the inner feelings and artistic essence of Western dance forms. This resulted in a superficial imitation of Western culture fused with a suppression of the spiritual content within the Chinese culture and led to twisted choreographic works that sought to escape reality by reaching out to the subconscious mind. This “Chinese style” turned Chinese dance into a mixed medley, a chaotic fusion of different dance forms. With the exception of dance performances dedicated to glorifying the Communist Party, the predominant dance performances of that era revolved around surrealism and ultra-modernism. If the audience could not comprehend the performance, it was deemed a superior performance; if the performers themselves could not even understand the performance, it was deemed remarkable. I once had a discussion with a renowned Chinese director on the topic of post-1990s Chinese dance. He said, “The performances nowadays…even a dance professional like myself, cannot fathom what it is they are trying to convey, let alone the regular audience.” Even performances depicting Chinese classics, complete with traditional Chinese costumes, were infused with a heavy dose of “Chinese style,” a distorted product of deviated modern ideology.
In looking at the journey of Chinese classical dance was it really the case that no one valued genuine Chinese culture? Or, was it that the Communist Party deliberately destroyed China’s divinely inspired culture?
Through its totalitarian rule, the Communist Party forced atheism into the belief system of the Chinese people. The Party coerced people into abandoning traditional values like, “good will be rewarded, and evil will be punished,” and substituted those values with doctrines such as “do as the almighty Party commands.” In this kind of morally baseless environment, where everyone lives and breathes the Party’s evil, anti-divine ideology, Chinese people have inadvertently lost their mutual trust in one another and become increasingly selfish and greedy. Life in such an environment entails abnormally heightened states of fear and suspicion—the Chinese people have been led to believe this is the only way of life. The Chinese Communist Party destroyed five-thousand years of values, traditions and history of Chinese civilization. This not only refers to the willful destruction of countless invaluable national treasures and artifacts, but to the devastation of the fundamental moral fabric of the Chinese culture.
After I migrated to Australia in 1998, I was fortunate enough to come across the spiritual discipline, Falun Dafa, a cultivation practice revolving around the universal principles of “Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance.” This prompted me to think about my life and gave me a whole new perspective about myself and the world around me. To my surprise, the elements of traditional Chinese culture that I did not like or understand before, such as Chinese landscape paintings, were cast in a completely new light. These seemingly simple paintings captured the tranquil lifestyle of the ancients, vivid illustrations of the ancient Chinese philosophy of “harmony between heaven and humankind.” I could not help but to lament how much I had missed out on in the past!
In 2003, I received an invitation from New York based New Tang Dynasty Television to participate in the 2004 NTDTV New Year Gala performance. I accepted the invitation and met a number of overseas Chinese artists there and discovered we shared very similar journeys. We had grown up in China and acquired our professional skills under the Chinese Communist Party culture. After living abroad for a few years, we came to realize how the Chinese Communist Party had distorted our culture and our lives. We then realized how precious our ancestral culture and heritage was. In 2004, we also shared a common goal to show the world the profundity of traditional Chinese culture and values through the performing arts.
A few years later, I was privileged to join the Shen Yun Performing Arts Company. The mission of Shen Yun, translated as ‘the beauty of divine beings dancing,’ is to revive 5,000 years of divinely inspired Chinese culture and values through classical Chinese dance and music.
Since it’s establishment in 2006, every year Shen Yun performs a completely new set of programs in hundreds of cities around the world. Shen Yun performances are primarily classical Chinese dance and music. Programs feature short dance dramas based on stories of historical Chinese figures, myths, and legends. The female dances are graceful and beautiful, as one would imagine heavenly maidens might dance. The male dances dazzle and impress with masterfully executed techniques. The performances truly capture the spirit of classical Chinese dance and share it with the audience. The music of Shen Yun is a beautiful harmony of East and West, synthesizing a unique blend of Chinese instruments and Western orchestra. The music merges seamlessly with the dancers on stage, bringing the rich flavors of Chinese culture to life. Shen Yun’s performance also boasts a wealth of breathtaking costumes—each costume is truly a masterpiece in itself. The performance is further enhanced by an ingenious integration of an animated digital 3D-backdrop with performers dancing on stage one moment and acting in the backdrop the next.
Shen Yun performs several hundred shows each year, uplifting and inspiring countless audience members with its positivity. In return, the audiences have rewarded Shen Yun artists’ hard work and dedication with genuine applause and tears of appreciation.
Shen Yun artists rigorously uphold professional standards, and diligently strive to adhere to the moral principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that, be it a dancer’s movements or a musician’s musical notes, there is a strong, innate goodness and purity throughout the performance. This reflects concepts of China’s divinely inspired culture such as “the unity of heaven and humankind,” and “the balance of strength and gentleness,” and “harmony both internally and externally.” True beauty and virtue cannot be masqueraded. A person who is beautiful both internally and externally is worthy of the admiration of others.
As a result of my participation in Shen Yun’s performances, my understanding of China’s divinely inspired culture deepened. Thanks to Shen Yun, I had the opportunity to rediscover and re-learn pure classical Chinese dance. Five thousand years of Chinese civilization contains such a wealth of artistic resources, a seemingly inexhaustible abundance of materials and inspiration. Of course, it is far more than just an artistic resource; it also encompasses a multitude of moral principles and universal values. Chinese culture is not solely the wealth of China, but also a priceless treasure for the entire world.
Evil will never triumph over good; good will ultimately triumph over evil. These are God-given beliefs. Classical Chinese dance is far more than just an art form; it is a manifestation of the spiritual values of a divinely inspired culture. Professional excellence and moral character development go hand in hand for a truly accomplished classical Chinese dancer.
I feel extremely grateful knowing that the U.S. based Shen Yun Performing Arts Company is able to share authentic classical Chinese dance with the world. I believe that Shen Yun brings audiences far more than just a beautiful stage performance, but an uplifting spiritual message of hope.