- Chinese Dance—In the Vast Land and Beyond by Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn E. Frederiksen
In Chinese Dance—In the Vast Land and Beyond, Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn E. Frederiksen introduce the cultural dynamics of Chinese dance and underline viewing assumptions when Western audiences watch contemporary Chinese dance. The book is part of an educational project that also includes an on-line photo essay, a website, and a list of video links. The larger project aims to improve the cross-cultural understanding of Chinese dance for English-speaking audiences through multimedia. To avoid misunderstandings, the authors highlight the cultural difference of Chinese dance in comparison with Western dance and argue that reading Chinese dance needs to incorporate its long and complex history, special audience-performance relationship, and the externally driven motivations for choreographers. By viewing the art through its own cultural and historical origins, Western audiences will develop a more concrete understanding of Chinese dance and culture in the era of globalization.
First, throughout its five thousand year history, Chinese dance visualized a culture of sharing and spectatorship. Chang and Frederiksen propose "dance is the prism," which legitimizes it as "a uniquely qualified resource for cross-cultural learning" (p. 185). Accordingly, Chinese dance embodies a cultural sharing because it was created as a collective knowledge for the community "to educate, to entertain, to praise, and to unify." (p. 162) This community function [End Page 227] symbolizes an external motivation that still dominates dance creation in China today. In contrast, Western dance, especially under the influence of modern dance, centers on internal motivation. Western choreographers tend to express their own thoughts and feelings to the audiences. This fundamental difference generates confusion for Western audiences when they search for individual expression in Chinese dance and often find community instead of individuality therein.
Second, Chang and Frederiksen claim that virtuosity is another special feature that originates from China's unique audience-performance relationship cultivated in the ancient time. Traditionally, dancers performed in the palace to entertain the royalty, who watched rather than joining in the dance. Unlike ballet in the Europe, in which royalty would dance at court, Chinese nobles did not present because performing symbolized low social status. The performers were peasants and the audience was always aristocratic—this fact intensified the different power distribution between the performers and the viewers. Therefore, contrary to Western classical ballet that could invite the audiences to join, traditional Chinese dance pleased the audiences. This essential goal, to entertain, fostered a unique value system in traditional Chinese dance that treasured virtuosic technique and which persists to the present. Chang and Frederiksen believe that after learning this historical background, Western audiences will better interpret Chinese dance as they encounter it in live or mediated form today.
Third, to orient Western audiences, Chang and Frederiksen expose the tension between Chinese tradition and a globalized modernity. They briefly analyze the birth of Zhongguogudianwu (a contemporary reinvention of Chinese classical dance), and modern dance in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China. These new genres shape contemporary Chinese dance into a complicated cultural hybrid with its own cultural logic. In chapter 3, the authors include seven interviews of Chinese dance artists living in North America. Their interviews show how overseas Chinese artists, by taking contrasting artistic approaches, balance a Chinese tradition and modernity to address Western audiences. In addition, Chang and Frederiksen pinpoint a problem that technology brings to the cross-cultural understanding of Chinese dance. The Internet, although it contributes to broadcasting Chinese dance in the West, deprives it of the organic performance-audience spectatorship. Analyzing issues of globalization, this book clarifies how to view Chinese dance through its own origin and context.
Chinese Dance—In the Vast Land and Beyond signifies an important step in introducing Chinese dance to Western audiences. However, it [End Page 228] also stimulates questions on how to theorize Chinese dance to English readers. This book may include the generalization of all forms of Chinese...