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Preserving Minority Dance in China: Multiple Meanings and Layers of Intention

Holly C. Fairbank


It has been twenty-five years since I went to China to pursue the question of how ethnic-minority dances were being approached by the Chinese government. Since then, China has changed rapidly, beyond anything one might have imagined at the time. Once inwardly focused on its own cultures and historical traditions, China is now a powerful and dynamic member of the international community. The interests, appetites, and political agendas have dramatically changed, expanding well beyond the rigid, introspective boundaries that circumscribed the country when I first embarked on this study.

     Since that time, too, my life has changed. I am no longer as closely aware of currently existing policies with regard to China's many minority dances: what efforts are still being made to collect and preserve them and to what extent they are a part of the cultural diet of the country in their "beautified" form. What has not changed is the predictable dominance of the majority Han culture over Chinese ethnic minorities and their cultural identities. What also has not changed is the government's understanding that the embodied meanings of human movement can produce powerful and inspiring messages—messages that have the potential to produce calculated social and aesthetic outcomes. This understanding of the expressive and communicative power of the dance was clearly evident to the Chinese government in 1945 and became one of the most successful uses of the dance as a means of government propaganda in modern history. The gigantic displays of human movement at the Beijing Olympics of 2009 were testament to the Chinese government's enduring belief in the power of this kind of communication.

     When the opportunity arose to present a paper at "Movement and Dance in Global Perspective: An International Conference," I was inspired to revisit the initial inquiry that motivated work on my Master's thesis in the early 1980s and to reflect on what I had said in light of today's China and issues surrounding the minorities. This inquiry contains worthwhile questions to pursue since similar issues pertaining to cultural preservation challenge us all over the world.

     In what ways did China succeed at preserving the threatened dance cultures of the minority peoples within its borders, and in what ways did it unintentionally or intentionally destroy them in the process of trying to preserve them? Ultimately, I am interested in understanding the tensions inherent in the process of any attempt to "preserve culture" and especially one that is so elusive This is one story of how a dominant culture's systems of belief and aesthetics effectively absorbed minorities, essentially eradicating those of other cultures within its borders.


Since 1954 the Communist Party of China (CPC) has conducted an unprecedented campaign to study, to recreate, and to disseminate the folk dances of the fifty-five minority peoples represented within their borders.1 This massive endeavor was conducted under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and includes the All-China Dance Association, the Arts Research Institute, and the Central Institute of Nationalities, among other organizations. Though initially modeled after the Soviet effort to nationalize minorities, unify the country, and create a national dance form, the Chinese government's campaign has expanded considerably upon that endeavor.

     Though the campaign was abruptly halted during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and much of the material destroyed, since 1981 a renewed and more rooted effort to document and disseminate the dances of the minorities has popularized those minority folk forms considered to be on the brink of extinction. The purpose of this project in China, although perhaps clear at the outset, by the 1980s had become more complex when China was beginning to navigate its new "Open Door" policies, cultivating a new image to the rest of the world, while evolving a modernized culture of its own. Consequently, the motivations and intentions of those involved in this campaign became more layered and diverse and, at times, included clearly contradictory intentions.

     The CPC's aim in this campaign had a normative thrust aiming to (a) give the minorities a sense of equality and place in the national identity, (b) involve the Han majority in collaboration with this unification policy, and (c) develop a national art form both inclusive of its many peoples and indicative of the modern face of China. In the 1980s, with a quickly evolving modernization campaign and a new interest in international involvement, the effort included an urgent need to fill the cultural gap that the physical destruction and political ideology of the Cultural Revolution had created. The tensions at the time revolved around the desire to reinstate the rich cultural legacies of the Han while at the same time creating a new image that represented the multiethnic society and political aspirations of the emerging modern China of the twentieth century. The specific controversy being raised in the early 1980s concerned the issue of whether China should create a national dance style that represented the "spirit of the 80s" or continue to focus on preserving and capitalizing on the indigenous-movement cultures of the minorities and classical traditions of the Han culture.2

The Research Project

In the fall of 1983, I conducted research in China and in the United States in three locations (Beijing, Changsha, and New York City), interviewing more than fifty individuals, including dance educators, artists, administrators, and researchers. These individuals represented aspects of the campaign that either focused on the area of preservation through observation and documentation or were artists and educators given the task of rechoreographing these dances for consumption by the general public and for mass entertainment and purposes of propaganda. Both of these groups were sent into the field, some more than others, to observe the dances first-hand. However, their roles in the campaign differed. The first group produced documentation that appeared in research and educational publications. The second returned to the studio to transform the material to suit staged events and curriculum.

     The most compelling questions to me at the time were

(a) How was this ambitious endeavor implemented over such an enormous geographic area?

(b) How was such a project managed over such a vast bureaucracy?

(c) What kinds of theories, methods of research, and documentation practices were used by each group?

(d) Was the Chinese government succeeding at preserving these "dying" folk-dance forms, and what was the perspective of the minorities themselves to this campaign?

As I became immersed in the project, other questions emerged:

(e) Was preservation their ultimate goal; if so, was it even possible? What forms would it take to meet this goal?

(f) Was the alteration of the dances (extensive in many cases) a result of a poor understanding of the challenge at hand, or was it due to ineptness of the research tools and strategies and personnel involved—or both?

(g) How were these dance forms altered from their original form? Was it just a misguided effort to preserve through rechoreographing original material or a more insidious effort?

(h) What was the impact of this project on the people—that is, dancers and researchers on both sides?

(i) What part did the interests and aesthetics of Han mass culture play as a contributing factor in the results of these "restored" dances?

Through interviews, participant-observation, and reflection I was able to address some of these questions, but others remained enigmatic. Above all, what became evident was that the Chinese government recognized these dances and dancing as powerful social tools having the ability to reinforce and communicate sociopolitical messages across many borders and boundaries. The government understood that embodied meanings in human-movement systems such as dances could produce powerful messages, with the added potential to produce calculated social and aesthetic outcomes.

     It also became evident that many Chinese dance experts cared deeply about these movement forms and cared about preserving the many particularities that they recognized as significant to distinct minority cultures. If the intent of the campaign was to honor the specific characteristics of each distinct movement culture, then certainly it had succeeded in inspiring these individuals involved in the collection process.

     This paper focuses on the tensions and issues inherent in the process of any attempt to preserve and amplify minority-dance artifacts and movement rituals on such a large scale. I am interested in the effect this process had on the professionals recruited to do this job. They were caught in a political agenda that required them to pursue an impossible task that was clearly contradictory. The campaign in the early 1980s was aimed toward differing efforts. On the one hand, the dance specialists were charged to restore and preserve a disappearing cultural art form that had been suppressed throughout the Cultural Revolution and reinstate the value of the cultures of the minority peoples in the PRC. On the other, these researchers and creative artists were charged with creating a contemporary art form springing from the traditions and cultures of all the nationalities of China representing the new nationalist policies and public face of the government.

     As a result of this contradiction, there were at least two types of dance researchers: those who focused on collection and documentation of field material for archival purposes and those who enhanced and disseminated the field material, "to develop a new dance form in order to express and enrich modern life" ("Fieldnotes" 1983: 76) These two groups of researchers were, in principle, working toward the same goal of gathering "authentic" material from the presumed disappearing dance cultures in order to "enrich" the new face of contemporary China.

     What I found was a fundamental conflict of interest: one group collected data in order to preserve the information in time (the "preservationists") and conduct some form of scholarly research. The other group collected material to enhance and "beautify" it for the stage (the "processors"). Sometimes these two interests overlapped within the same researcher: for example, when a dance educator trained in classical Chinese dance and ballet scrupulously imitated the movements of a Naxi tribesman in an effort to preserve this dance with no consideration for its cultural context within which the dance movements acquired their significance.3

The Process: Jiagong, Meihua, and Xheng-li

At the time, art in China was socialistic by design, necessarily serving the interests of the state. It was propagandistic. In the case of minority dances (minjian wudao), government policy appeared highly optimistic and perceived by both the minorities and the Han to be inclusive and supportive. The government's aim was twofold: to eradicate Han prejudice toward minority peoples and to give the minority peoples a sense of equality and participation in the national goals and future of the state.

     The ethnic materials collected for this national project needed to serve the interests of the state on a number of levels. The material had to be carefully observed and documented, and the productions that resulted from the research needed not only to appeal to mass audiences but also to serve the government's ideals by being "morally correct." Consequently, anything drawn from the field and introduced to the classroom had to not only pass certain tests of political approval but also Han aesthetic standards. All materials were, thus, subjected to standardization procedures, resulting in jiagong (processing), meihua (beautification) and xheng-li (to arrange and put in order). These terms repeatedly appeared in conversations I had with those whom I interviewed. As one teacher explained, "This effort to collect and preserve ethnic dances is not just for archival purposes."4

Collection (Jiagong)—Field Experiences

All the Chinese researchers spoke enthusiastically of their field experiences, saying that, although they often felt naïve and unprepared for field research, they were profoundly affected and inspired by their contacts with indigenous peoples. Although the research group trained as dancers and choreographers—the processors—deeply appreciated their field experiences, only some were aware of how ill-equipped they were to analyze or interpret minority dances. On the whole, they were experts at imitating the movements they saw. Many believed in the power of movement memory to transport these field discoveries back to the classroom.

     Very few expressed concern that the circumstances in which they observed these dances were outside of any context. On the contrary, one stated that they were specifically directed to look for those movements that were "important" and "representational" of that culture, and they admitted that their "movement memory" was purposefully selective. As skillful as the imitations of the movement might be, it must be assumed that valuable movement information, as well as meaning content, was lost or misunderstood with each stage of the transformation from field to classroom or publication.

     Generational-gap transference occurred at each stage of the process from the field to stage or document. The movement material was transformed, rearranged, or distorted. As anyone who can speak more than one language can attest, much gets lost in any form of translation: the danger increases with the complexity of movement material. Minority-dance idioms were undoubtedly misunderstood and misrepresented throughout the various stages of collection and transference. Methods of investigation and collection, furthermore, closed off possible insights into the minority cultures and affected the attitudes and performance of the cultures under observation.

     Many specialists, both processors and preservationists, swore they were able to recognize inauthentic material instantly and claimed to be deeply familiar with original material that they had observed in the field. In general, however, one wonders whether the codes used for recognition were stereotypical and influenced by cultural bias and political pressures. Without ethnographical training and greater awareness of the context of these dances, how much was lost?

Figure 1
Figure 1. Taoist Shaman in Hunan with preserved robe and instruments. Photo by Wu Yun-Ming.

     Few dance researchers in the field were knowledgeable about the customs or cultural contexts of the dances. Few, if any, spoke the language of the people they were studying. Furthermore, few could gain access to information that was not screened by the Chinese government. In addition, I was told, the minorities themselves were in a great state of transition within their own cultures, and "authentic" cultural artifacts were in an enormous state of flux. Discreetly, one informant told me that the minorities during the Cultural Revolution sometimes buried the dance costumes and claimed they had forgotten the movements of certain dances if they felt that they were in danger of being destroyed. One of the efforts of the 1980s campaign I witnessed was to restore confidence to the minorities in the government's restoration process and plant the belief that this was a government more supportive of them and enthusiastic toward their unique cultures.

Beautification (Meihua)—Field to Classroom

The "beautified" dances of the minorities, performed by smiling dancers all around the country, were fundamentally political but also spoke to a cultural Han aesthetic of the time. The meihua process simultaneously enabled the government to control the image of the minorities (to the Han and to themselves), while at the same time providing entertainment and cultural enrichment to a Chinese mass audience. Chinese audiences at the time of this research on the whole expected dances they saw on stage (the only place most were likely to see dancing) to be colorful, straightforward, and predictable. There was little room for ambiguity, abstraction, or complication on the popular stage at the time. These entertainments provided some of the few forms of relief in what was otherwise a fairly drab lifestyle devoid of color and excess.

     The Han majority's experience of dancing and dances in the early 1980s was almost entirely vicarious, as there was little if any social dancing allowed. This I was told, had to do with the fear that social dancing (or modern/expressive dancing, for that matter) was potentially "spiritually unhealthy," which I took to mean either sexually provocative or suggestive of individual points of view. Furthermore, I was told by some of the choreographers that the government disapproved of symbolism, iconography, obscure references, and subtle meanings—that is, references produced by anyone other than the government itself—and that this kind of thing had no place on a stage intended for mass entertainment and education.

     Some informants explained that it was important from both instructional aesthetic standpoints that the tastes of the audiences they were "choreographing" the dances for be taken into account. Many said it was important that these dances represent the minorities by an easily identifiable, recognizable dance style. Many believed that each minority dance could be identified by certain gestures, postures, and rhythms; because of this, a "codification" was emerging. Moreover, these characteristics and representational movements needed to be "beautified" (meihua) and flattering to the peoples to which they were associated. "Unhealthy" or lewd movements were to be weeded out.

     For instance, I was told that a shaman's ecstatic movements during a trance would be considered "unhealthy" because of the unrestrained quality and the association with spiritual concepts—notions contradictory to the PRC's guiding ideology. Researchers who were preservationists (more skilled in perceiving the larger context of the cultures) did take note of this kind of information when they witnessed it. However, a particularly prominent preservationist told me that their documents were scrubbed clean before public dissemination.

     In contrast, one of the processors demonstrated a sequence from a minority dance where the posture was stooped over, with the knees bent and head down. He explained that the beautification process transforms these positions into a more erect posture—into a more "beautiful and noble posture, which gives a more positive and healthy look to the authentic steps without changing them completely." It was clear that he knew what his job was, but it was also clear that the meaning of the original movement had been changed.

Dissemination (Xeng-li)—Staged Events

There were various avenues by which processed minjian wudao reached the public. Institutions directly involved with the dissemination and/or production of dances for the public include dance professionals, dance academies (such as the Beijing and Hunan Dance Academy where I conducted my research), and amateur dance teams and troupes found throughout local levels at that time in every factory, school, production team, and work unit. Beyond these, there were independent organizations such as the All-China Dance Association headed by Dai Ai-lien and Wu Xiao Bang, luminaries of the Chinese dance world who aimed to elevate the scholarship of dance in China after the Cultural Revolution. Many of these organizations produced publications such as newsletters, teachers' manuals, research journals, and culture guides with different levels of quality and professionalism.

     Concern with regional arts exchange was evident at every bureaucratic level and by nearly every work unit in Chinese society. Professional dancers and choreographers affiliated with professional institutes were selected to travel to minority areas to observe, learn, and document dances and ritual ceremonies, after which time they would return to their institutions to regenerate (jiagong) this material for classrooms and performances. Amateur troupes invited these professionals to teach the (now codified) dances and rituals to local troupes of performers. One choreographer (processor) told me that there was a list of current and available dances that was passed among the provincial and amateur dance troupes. The popular dance, which has been changed in this manner, will presumably bring notoriety to the troupe that performs it. However, the greatest share will always remain with the troupe that originally processed (jiagong), collected, and beautified the dances.

Figure 2
Figure 2. A boys class in Mongolian dance at Beijing Wudao Xueyaun. Photo by author.

     Incidentally, a minority-group village from which an original dance was collected would also receive public recognition and a certain degree of fame for having beautiful dances, even though these dances have been felt to need beautification by the Han dance community. As an example of this process (xeng-li), it is quite possible that the Tu Jia people of Hunan will be better known than the Dong of the same province simply because the Tu Jia have produced dances that are recognized as more "beautiful" and as having more potential for mass appeal than the Dong. The processed dances are more likely to be performed both nationally and internationally.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Choreographer/dancer of the Hunan Son and Dance Troupe demonstrating a beautified Miao dance. Photo by author.

Field Data

Although prized by the processors-educators and choreographers as rich source materials, field data were apparently altered both consciously and unconsciously at the outset of the collection process. It was impossible to distinguish which aspects of the material had been maintained and which had been recreated. Researchers, as far as I could tell, invariably imposed a combination of their own rules of order and government persuasion on field materials. One teacher, a processor, described her methods of collecting and teaching based upon field notes:

It was necessary to organize the data first in order to write down the best way. I did this by taking the special characteristics of certain artists and grouping all movements of a similar nature in a systematic order. When you first notate what you see you put everything down, even the ugly movements, but in teaching that dance you choose what material is most representative of the people and what is most useful for teaching in order to illustrate the local style clearly. Even in teaching you may change or jiagong the material in order to get the best appeal, although some teachers develop and add so much that it is no longer minjian wudao. You cannot just do anything. You must be careful to preserve the character of the people. Some processing—jiagong—is necessary, however, in order that the dances be presentable on stage to the public. Besides, the minority people themselves are developing and this must be reflected in the dances that represent them. (Field notes 1983)

This collection process and subsequent categorization of minjian wudao were felt to be a necessary means by which to transfer the material into dance curriculum in the national dance academies. As a consequence, I was told (and witnessed) how this field material was reduced to a standard low common denominator in order to create an equation of minority dance to a recognizable dance style. Every year the most popular and representative interpretations of the minority dance repertory from the government-run dance academies and troupes around the country were performed by professional dancers on National Day (Oct. 2). The best of these—that is to say, the dances considered by the leading experts to be best performed, most popular, most beautiful, and most politically significant—were performed in Beijing in front of reviewing stands. They were broadcast both inter- and intranationally. In this way, minority cultures were represented by processed facsimiles of their dress, work habits, song, and movement culture, leading to a government-controlled stereotype.

     Minjian wudao had been a popular art form as far back as the 1950s, in large part because it was one of a very few forms of entertainment available to the public. It was not clear to me whether the audience was aware (or even cared) that these alleged "ethnic dances" were dissimilar to the original. Certainly, there was pressure on the processors to fashion dances that conformed to government requirements and appealed to a mass audience.

     The impact from all the attention given the folk dances and the people that once owned and danced them can never fully be known. One preservationist told me that they often "welcome the improvement upon their own style." Most of the staged or "beautified" versions of minjian wudao are gay and lighthearted with colorful costumes and are performed in lockstep styles by a large number of pretty, smiling women. In theory, the minorities have a right to reject the recreated dances redesigned for the stage, but in practice, this seldom occurs. One preservationist indicated that there was pressure on the minorities to accept the revised versions, but, in any case, there was not much opportunity for them to see the staged versions at that point, as, to my knowledge, TV was not widespread in the minority villages.5

     Many informants (processors and preservationists) expressed deep concern over the mismanagement and misrepresentation of valuable field data that they felt were in the process of "disappearing." One wonders if this is how the minorities felt as well about the state of their dance traditions. However, the researchers disagreed about which branch of the collection process was most at fault. Some felt that poor teaching techniques and skills of observation were responsible for a loss of nuance and subtlety. Others felt frustrated by the unwieldy demands of the government directives that seemed to be contradictory and unrealistic given the enormity of the project and the expected outcomes, plus the lack of ethnographic methodology and training. Many expressed the concern that certain minority dances were not suitable for staged reproduction and mass consumption. The directives compelled them to attempt such stagings regardless of resulting distortions. The irony of the situation was not lost on many of them.

     Some processors who were choreographers felt trapped by the government directives and oppressed by the demands of the public for light entertainment and contemporary imagery. They did not want to compromise the field data they had collected but were compelled to do so. Two informants identified the problems inherent in the system as follows:

Weakness lay mainly in the method of dance revival and preservation and less so at the level of collection in the field.

The urgency attached to "salvaging" the "dying" ethnic cultures created a damaging effect in the rush for preservation.

An emergent Chinese youth and popular culture were willing to sacrifice the Han Chinese cultural heritage and that of the minorities in exchange for something "fresh" and "modern."

Combining the two endeavors (i.e., preserve the past and promote the future) had resulted in failures on both counts. I was told that this issue pervaded the entire artistic community.

     The controversies of the situation appeared to revolve around issues of purpose. The processor's challenge came in knowing how to provide variation without upsetting the established and popular morés of entertainment or challenging the current political line concerning the minority issue. The preservationists involved with the analysis of this ethnic material had other challenges, and perhaps even greater obstacles, in their attempt to do their job.

     Some young choreography students in Beijing told me that they felt restricted by the government directives to stage "ethnic dances" minjian wudao. One said, "Old dances should go to research, and new dance forms must be developed that speak to our times—students do not learn the minority dances well enough to retain their distinctions or their subtleties. As a result, these recreated forms don't resemble the originals anymore, so what is the point of doing them?" Older informants I spoke with were concerned with "following the party line" and generally withheld their own personal opinions but seemed genuinely concerned that, if these older dances and ethnic forms were not preserved and passed on, they would disappear quickly in the face of rapid modernization.6

Figure 4
Figure 4. Interview with researcher Zang Lan in Hunan conducted by Judith Shapiro. Photo by author.

The Role of the Provinces

Between 1976 and the research in 1981, provincial dance troupes and dance academies had been specifically directed to collect and compile the dances of their own regions including the dances of ethnic minorities in their districts. In this way, each province would be responsible for preserving and specializing in those dances so identified and expected to document specialized knowledge about them. For instance, The Hunan Song and Dance Troupe and Hunan Dance Academy were responsible for becoming expert in the dances of the Tu Jia, Dong, Zhuang and Weiwuar peoples (ethnic minorities predominant in Hunan Province). At the time of my visit, this government directive was beginning to be recognized as an impractical, ill-conceived effort, far more ambitious then initially imagined. Some regions had far more minorities represented than others, and local dance troupes were overwhelmed with the challenge. The Hunanese audiences, for example, wanted their provincial company to perform repertory that was popular elsewhere—not simply local fare. During my research, a booklet from Hunan Province, a pilot for the national endeavor, was already available, documenting the dances collected by the designated provincial research teams. Ultimately all provinces were expected to contribute one of these to the national project.

     A teacher at the Hunan Dance Academy told me that the dance teachers were overwhelmed with the amount of material gathered and were not sufficiently trained to analyze and coordinate such a large quantity of unfamiliar movement material. She was aware that this produced confused amalgamations and misrepresentations. She told me of one instance in which she saw that one specific Tu Jia dance was being taught by a supposed "expert" who had, in fact, combined several different Tu Jia dances in one in order to shrink the amount of material he had to cover in one semester. This teacher was pressed to get a job done mandated by the government and was clearly either ill-equipped or insufficiently motivated to preserve the dance form with more care. It is worth mentioning that, in the 1980s, video was still a nascent tool and equipment and expertise were scarce. Exchange of information typically took place through memory and individual perception.7

Figure 5
Figure 5. Researcher's sketch of choreography captured in the field.

     There was an ongoing debate among the preservationists I spoke with regarding the issue of whether minjian wudao was represented better by the local and provincial Han troupes or by the central level troupes (Beijing and Shanghai) who had experts with presumably a higher level of professionalism and research training. It was argued that the local troupes were more familiar with the movement idioms of their area and, therefore, more sensitive to the nuances. On the other hand, many felt that the central-level experts were better equipped to record these dances with accuracy.

     One researcher's argument was that the provincial researcher was less likely to perceive and recognize the "valuable" aspects of the dances, and, she maintained, the central level experts were more sensitive to the "beauties of these dances." She also pointed out that the local experts were often biased against the "primitive" qualities of their own region and more likely to eliminate them. "They look down on primitive things and want to raise their own local standards by infusing ballet technique into their dances so as to appear more sophisticated." Apparently this researcher felt that minority dances notated and reconstructed by professionals on the central level were more able to be accurate and "truer to the original." Both arguments reveal weaknesses in the system, and it was difficult to sort out who said what for what purpose and with what perspective.

Figure 6
Figure 6.

     Figure 6 is an illustration of one possible route that a minority dance—let's say from Miao or Mongolian people—might travel through the government system. A representative from that minority group studying at the Nationalities Institute in Beijing introduces a village dance to a student troupe there. Rechoreographed and staged (processed) and presented to the public, it receives attention from the Beijing Dance Academy next door where the same dance is adjusted (beautified) and ballet trained dancers perform a different performance event. The Ministry of Culture, also in Beijing, appreciative of this production, holds it up as an exemplar of the Miao or Mongolian peoples, and the dance is notated and broadcast as a model for all provincial song and dance troupes across the country. Local song and dance troupes also receive this documentation and get the word from the authorities, and they, too, make adjustments both consciously and unconsciously. The minority group themselves may see it performed in this version by the local troupes in their area, and what changes they see quite possibly are adapted into their original vocabulary, again, either consciously or not.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Dong dancer in costume-Hunan. Photo by Wu Yun-Ming.


Human action sign systems,8 such as dances and rituals, are notoriously difficult to maintain and preserve, partly because the cultures in which they exist are constantly evolving and because they are manifestations of human expression and cognition, which have been greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted (Williams 1984). The artistic interpretation of minjian wudao produced by the Chinese processors had its place in Chinese society, and it remains to be seen how Chinese dance critics will establish their place in China's culture and history.

     At issue here are the methods used to protect and preserve this material for posterity and analysis. As is so often the case in dealing with human movement, a few difficulties lie within the theoretical foundations of the research itself. It is essential to recognize the distinct properties of these human action sign systems: to view them as a language-based, semantically loaded systems of the expression of thought that cannot be separated from their cultural milieu during analysis without losing significant meanings and content. A worthwhile study of human movement should enable researchers to decode the messages within each idiomatic system, much the way languages are decoded and investigated. The methods and procedures would not be the same, although both systems are of similar complexity.

     There are various notation systems for movement that can enable the researcher to codify the basic elements of a movement language, much the way an alphabet is devised as building blocks of a spoken language. Problems of misinterpretation and faulty research arise, however, on two counts: (a) the methods used to categorize and notate and (b) the analysis of the movement event itself. In either case, the movements and their meanings may be lost through transcription and transliteration. The first of these problems can be avoided by using a notation system that has already been internationally recognized and tested; however, even reliable systems such as Labanotation, for instance, are potentially culture-bound, depending on the understanding of the notator, and care must be taken to maintain accuracy and to protect the meaning generated by the movements. In the second instance, a significant analysis of the danced event can only occur with the use of anthropologically informed theory and related methods of field inquiry. At the time of my investigation, dance researchers in the PRC were not equipped with either of these foundations.

     Without a theoretical foundation and recognized method of notation, the efforts of thousands are potentially wasted and may produce little more than a stockpile of random information—a mission for butterfly collectors. For the Chinese processor whose job it was to modernize or beautify this material, the methods used in the campaign were adequate insofar as they provided substance for politically conscious entertainment and information about the minorities. For the purposes of a greater cultural understanding, data collection and analysis of this kind promoted and accepted were not adequate and cannot serve as a final product.

     The problem is not limited to the PRC, and it is hoped that this paper will be of value in analyzing similar attempts worldwide. The problem of preserving indigenous cultures is coming to the attention of many different nations at this time. Hart-Johnson points out, "[Many anthropologists] have gone so far as to outline in words (or to sketch in a diagram) some of the obvious features of the dances and rituals they observe, i.e. spatial patterns, costume, make-up and the like, [but] the action signs themselves are left almost completely unexamined" (Hart-Johnson 1984: 126).

     Some of the questions that remain unexamined include these:

1. Do the people themselves call what they are doing 'dance'?

2. What are the codes that lie behind these systems of shared action? These are not the same as codes externally imposed from a different idiom of dancing.

3. Why are these rituals performed by the people who perform them?

4. Are there prerequisites for indigenous performers?

The list is almost endless, but no one list will suffice for all situations, even in the same context.

     The problems of analysis were compounded in the PRC in the 1980s by the prohibition of anthropological considerations, as well as the then-current demand for cultural uniformity. The combined factors of traditional Chinese xenophobia, the residue of the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution, and socialist educational methods have all contributed to the problem. Although it is not within the scope of this paper to address the issue of Marxist versus capitalist ideology, the political dichotomy has been (and still is) a major factor. Currently, the PRC, due to a change in leadership and worldview, has seen fit to encourage greater international communication, economic trade, and cultural exchange, but "beautified" ethnic dances are still seen regularly on television.

     The dance researchers in China were primarily witnesses to the minority dances. They were not in a position, politically or intellectually, to comment on the minority situation as a whole. They were basically untutored observers only. They did not have the means to understand fully the cultures in which these dances existed. With all the activity and effort involved, there appeared to be little room for creative investigation on a scholarly level. As long as the minorities are considered a political issue due to ethnic difference rather than of ethnographic, historical or linguistic importance, it is highly unlikely that the dominant Han society will be able to view them through any other lens. Anthropological study was denied throughout the Cultural Revolution. It is my understanding that Western anthropology was considered to be a "capitalist invention that looks down on primitive culture and treats it as inferior, with no feelings of brotherhood and equality." However, the Chinese have seen fit to borrow Western methods of fieldwork in order to obtain information. Upon "Liberation" in 1945, the country embarked on an enormous research project with the aim of unifying the nationalities. Although an abundance of information has been gathered about ethnic minorities since that time, the methods used by Chinese researchers to notate and analyze dance materials were dictated by the overt needs of the government to modernize and unify the country. When asked why the internationally accepted system of notation was not used, the response was usually similar to what one researcher articulated, "It would be too difficult and complex for the needs of the lay person interested in reconstructing ethnic dance. We must use a simplified method of notation which can be readily learned and utilized by many practitioners." Similarly, with regard to explanation and analysis of dance material, the researchers had settled on simplistic theories, which were based on common sense. One informant, the reknowed dance expert Dai-Ai-Lien, did try for many years to promote the use of Labanotation in China in the 1970's and 80's but very few of the choreographers or researchers I spoke with knew of this this form of notation and those that did felt it would be an impractical method on this vast a scale.

      In the proceeding discussion, I have attempted to outline some of the issues and answers to basic questions about cultural preservation from the point of view of the PRC. From my own standpoint, I question the efficiency of proscriptive methodologies and wonder to what extent they are beneficial to a larger community of scholars or, indeed, the minorities themselves. Will future generations be able to interpret the archives made by the 1980s researchers, or have contemporary aesthetics and ubiquitous government policies buried their vitality and eventual authenticity? Even if sophisticated methods of notation (such as Labanotation) are adopted in China, there is no guarantee that these human action sign systems would be adequately maintained or preserved. Movement writing like conventional writing still depends on the perceptions of the persons who write, in either medium.

     Efforts to understand and improve the situation were being made at the conclusion of my research. For example, in 1982, UNESCO sponsored the Asian Dance Symposium, which took place in Beijing. This week-long event was attended by a panel of representatives and authorities from nearly every Asian country. A draft of proposals was presented that encouraged internationally recognized documentation, as well as scholarly research informed by "Anthropology, ethnology, and sociology in order to protect even more the authenticity of different nationalities' dance cultures" (UNESCO Asian Dance Symposium 1982: 18).

     The efforts of these organizations and individuals are to be commended and will presumably lead to greater awareness of the inherent problems in both the Chinese situation in particular and the issue of dance preservation through the world in general.

Figure 8
Author in Beijing, 1983. Photo by Judith Shapiro.


1 See, for example, Mackerras who says, "According to a census taken in 1982 the population of the minority nationalities was 67,233,254—7.7% of China's total population. Fifteen of the 55 minority nationalities had populations of over 1,000,000" (1984: 187).

2 In 1954, the constitution of the Peoples Republic stated, "In the course of economic and cultural developments the state will concern itself with the needs of the different nationalities, and, in the manner of Socialist transformation, pay full attention to the special characteristics of each" (Winnington 1959: 208).

3 Sebeok (1974: 242) says, "It should be noted that the relationship between context and meaning is crucial as far as a language is concerned since the same words may have a variety of meanings depending upon the context. Metaphorical languages and figures of speech result from this capacity." Since the dance can be viewed as a metaphoric language expressed through the body, we can assume the same applies to the context in which dance is understood.

4 In 1983 and 1984, there was an "an exchange-of-customs" campaign that exemplified the Dong minority people as being especially polite to one another. The Han people were encouraged to emulate this favorable trait. In reciprocation, the Dong people were reminded that traditional superstitions and religious rituals were essentially feudalistic in design and that their lives would be greatly improved if modern practices introduced by the Han were utilized instead.

5 There are now numerous Web links easily accessible on You Tube that show video examples of minjian wudao, taken by amateurs and professionals alike. Examples include a semi-professional film "Mongolian Dance—A Blessing from the Grasslands" and an amateur film "Mongolian Dancer—Gobi Dancer."

6 Five years later, I was invited, along with other professionals from America, to return to China as a choreographer and educator to introduce contemporary dance to the newly formed Guangdong Modern Dance Company. This experimental group, under the direction of Yang Meixi, took the first brave steps toward a truly new dance in China—one that came from the imagination of young choreographers.

7 To be fair, my own research, as with any ethnographic endeavor, has its own share of investigator bias, perspective, and interpretation, but unlike my Chinese colleagues, with my anthropological training, these are explicit and placed under critically reflexive scrutiny.

8 "Human action sign system" is a technical phrase in Williams's semasiological theory used to describe any system of human-body actions that conveys meaning. This phrase is often more accurate then the word dance in describing human-movement systems because dance is a term common to European languages with specific grammatical properties, associated meanings and definitions, that often do not apply to non-Western systems of movement (Williams 1979). Human action sign systems include religious rituals, ceremonies, sign languages, greeting gestures, the martial arts—even cheerleaders' routines, among numerous others.

References Cited:

Fairbank, Holly C.
1983. Fieldnotes.

Hart-Johnson, Diana
1984. The Notion of Code in Body Language: A Comparative Approach to Martha Graham Technique and American Sign Language. M.A Thesis, New York University.

Mackerras, C.
1984. Folksongs and Dances of China's Minority Nationalities: Policy, Tradition, and Professionalization. Modern China 10: 187–226.

Sebeok, Thomas
1974. Semiotics: A Survey of the State of the Art. Current Trends in Linguistics 12: 211–64.

1982. Asian Dance Symposium.

Williams, Drid
1979. Review Article: The Anthropology of Dance by Anya Peterson Royce. Ethnomusicology 23(3): 468–70.
1984. Theories of the Dance: A Social Anthropologist's View. B. Litt Thesis., Oxford University, U.K. Manuscript made available to students.

Winnington, A
1959. The Slaves of Cold Mountain. London: Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd.



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