Fei Tian College Lecture on Classical Chinese Dance
D.F., the Artistic Director
July 27, 2019
What is “classical Chinese dance?” Let’s talk about its fundamentals. Its movements and poses (shen-fa)1have ancient roots in the martial arts, and in the fact that the name for martial arts (wu, as in wu-shu) is pronounced the same as the name for dance (wu, as in wu-dao).2 This dual use was put in place by the divine. Meanwhile, the feel (shen-yun)3 of classical Chinese dance movements mainly comes from traditional Chinese opera movements.4 Early on, classical Chinese dance was actually called “operatic dance.”
So why do some people say classical Chinese dance is a new dance form created by Beijing Dance Academy? The movements and poses (shen-fa) [that the Beijing Academy teaches] do indeed come from martial arts, and from opera as well. But, [back in the day,] in order to make the dance form suitable for teaching at an arts school, and to make it seem more in keeping with modern concepts of how dance should be, the Beijing Academy adopted some of ballet’s entry level training methods for dance fundamentals. As for the tumbling (tan-zi-gong)5 part of classical Chinese dance, that’s even more rooted in the various art forms that have traditionally been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. To put it plainly, Beijing Dance Academy did not create China’s classical dance. What it created is the term “classical Chinese dance.” It took the original name, “Chinese operatic dance,” and changed it to “classical Chinese dance.”
Beijing Dance Academy itself admits that its dance feel (shen-yun) comes from the way people move in Chinese opera, and the basic elements of the movements and poses (shen-fa) come mainly from Chinese operatic dance and martial arts. And in fact, Chinese opera actually says that its shen-fa is derived from martial arts; opera had actually adopted the shen-fa of traditional Chinese martial arts as early as remote antiquity. All of this tells us that classical Chinese dance is something that has long existed, and not something that Beijing Dance Academy invented.
So why does Beijing Dance Academy say that classical Chinese dance is a new form that it created? It of course didn’t simply change the name from “operatic dance” to “classical Chinese dance”—it established a set of methods for teaching classical Chinese dance. The Academy is indeed the one who gave the dance form the new name; early on, it also used to call classical Chinese dance “operatic dance.” And it brought in teaching methods from ballet. Of course, that wasn’t all; it also used the format of an academy to teach classical Chinese dance. In the past in China, the study of performing arts was done through traditional teaching methods. Theatrical troupes had a practice of the veteran, lead performers6 teaching apprentices, and some took on many students at the same time, even the dozens of people who made up an entire theatrical troupe. But, as far as China’s classical dance entering arts academies and being taught as “classical Chinese dance,” Beijing Dance Academy may have been the first to do that at the time. Yet the young students who went to the school later on didn’t really understand all this. On top of that, the wicked CCP7 purposefully undermined Chinese history, which made these students uninformed about Chinese history, so they said that “classical Chinese dance” is a new dance form that the Academy invented. This in and of itself is disrespecting history and the heritage of China’s millennia-old traditional culture.
In fact, at the same time that Beijing Academy was established, provinces and performing arts troupes throughout China were also using this sort of Chinese dance in their teaching and performances. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, even, our own Fei Tian Academy of the Arts principal, Ms. Guo, was with the Zhongnan Theater Company, and they were already performing with it. That’s before Beijing Dance Academy was even founded! So, in other words, around the time of the school’s founding, many arts groups in China were already using the classical style of Chinese operatic dance in their performances.
You know, all the terminology that Beijing Dance Academy uses in its classical dance instruction was brought in from operatic dance—be it the names of specific dance techniques and what they require, or the terms used in shen-fa and shen-yun. Moreover, it took the terms and used them exactly as they were. This includes terms like chong and kao8; han and tian9; ning, qing, yuan, qu10; the three circular movement paths of ping-yuan, li-yuan, and ba-zi-yuan11; shou, yan, shen, fa, bu12; liang-xiang13; jing, qi, shen14, and many, many other things. All the essential elements of the dance form—to go right first go left, to go up first go down, to go back first go forward, to go forward first go back, and so on—these were brought in from opera, exactly as is. So what I’m saying is, the Academy did not create these things; they were part of China’s classical dance to begin with. Ever since Beijing Dance Academy took China’s “operatic dance” and renamed it “classical Chinese dance,” everyone throughout China started using the term to describe their own dance—from the local arts troupes to the military arts troupes in each province, from the amateur to the professional performing arts groups, and all the major vocational schools and colleges, except Chinese opera schools and theaters.
And this brings us to Shen Yun and Fei Tian College—aren’t both using classical Chinese dance? Well, at the very beginning, Shen Yun and Fei Tian College did draw upon the style or rhythm (yun-lü)15 of the classical dance taught at Beijing Academy, because in teaching shen-fa, the Beijing Academy had come up with a standardized yun-lü. However, all the basic yun-lü elements had long existed. Shen Yun simply made use of the yun-lü taught at the Academy. You get the idea, right? Shen Yun and Fei Tian simply made use of Beijing Dance Academy’s yun-lü.
The reality of classical Chinese dance in China today is that every province has its own style. Even the several colleges within Beijing don’t use Beijing Dance Academy’s yun-lü, and they even openly reject it. There isn’t a single performing arts group in all of China that’s using Beijing Dance Academy’s [approach] in their dance training or performances, because everyone thinks their own version of classical Chinese dance is the best. The strange thing is that even Beijing Academy’s very own Youth Dance Company has taken classical Chinese dance and changed it beyond recognition, mixing in some so-called “Chinese-style modern dance.” For Beijing Dance Academy, this is really a slap in the face. If you don’t even respect yourself, how could you expect others to respect you? They’re even taking this made-up thing they’re calling “Han-Tang dance,” and teaching it as classical Chinese dance, when in fact it’s nothing but fox movements and has a fiendish vibe to it. It is truly sad to see this happening at China’s most revered dance institution.
When Fei Tian College was first established, it wanted to teach Beijing Dance Academy’s yun-lü, so it was necessary to use some of the Academy’s dance routines for learning purposes. In fact, Fei Tian could have used the dance yun-lü taught at Minzu University of China, or any regional or provincial dance yun-lü, or it could have just directly used the dance yun-lü from opera. But since, back in the day, most of the instructors at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts were alumni of Beijing Dance Academy, it was only natural to go with the yun-lü that the instructors had learned. In any case, Beijing Academy’s yun-lü was correct, and it fulfilled Shen Yun’s needs, so it was used for instruction.
As to yun-lü, let’s look at things from a cultivation or spiritual perspective. Chinese culture was divinely bestowed, and has been watched over by higher beings. Back when Beijing Dance Academy was putting together a program of study for classical dance, higher beings had long since known that this was something Shen Yun would need to use in the future. So there was definitely a divine hand behind the dance form. The fact that Shen Yun would be using this dance form to offer deliverance in the human world was a pretty significant thing. Human culture repeats itself over and over again. There was a question of whether [the dance form] would be in line with the culture that gods had laid down for humankind long before the dawn of history. So in order for these things to be used by Shen Yun to save beings, preparations had to be made beforehand. From this perspective, those who established Beijing Dance Academy’s classical Chinese dance teaching methods did do a wonderful thing.
With Shen Yun Performing Arts and Fei Tian College having come this far, you can see that Fei Tian and Shen Yun’s standards for shen-fa are now quite different from those of Beijing Dance Academy. What Shen Yun and Fei Tian College are looking to achieve through their classical dance instruction is completely different from what Beijing Dance Academy is after. The former wants to return to the way of tradition and bring this dance form back to its highest state, the very essence of China’s divinely bestowed culture. The latter, meanwhile, is following society’s downward spiral and, in trying to keep fashionable and trendy, is distorting the traditional and classical. At this point, it has even added into the classical dance department’s curriculum and performances Chinese-style modern dance, contemporary dance, and that phony Han-Tang thing; the so-called Han-Tang dance and its movements were actually created by those controlled by fox spirits. They won’t like hearing this, to be sure, because they may feel like their vested interests are being threatened. Yet whoever learns that thing will become possessed by a fox spirit. One can’t just ignore it when he sees people getting hurt. But that thing has just waltzed its way right into today’s colleges. As sad as this may be, it’s a product of the times.
So looking at where things are now, whether it’s Beijing Dance Academy, or Fei Tian College and Shen Yun, the basic classical Chinese dance elements they use are identical. It’s just that their standards for shen-fa are different, the way movements are performed is different, and, after Fei Tian and Shen Yun elongated their shen-fa, the yun-lü also became different. At the beginning, Fei Tian College and Shen Yun simply used Beijing Dance Academy’s yun-lü. But at this point, Shen Yun’s yun-lü is no longer the same as Beijing Academy’s and, in actuality, quite the gap has gradually opened up between the two.
As you know, Shen Yun has attained the highest standards in terms of dance shen-fa. These shen-fa skills are something sought after not only by those in classical Chinese dance, but also by those in all kinds of dance forms and physical performing arts. People have been seeking them since ancient times, and while some have talked about them, no one can do them. They represent the pinnacle of achievement in all dance forms, and they’re called: “shen dai shou” (the body leads the hands) and “kua dai tui” (the hips lead the legs).16 Training with these techniques elongates one’s limbs to an extent beyond what any other dance form has managed to achieve; even ballet and rhythmic gymnastics continue to wonder about and search for these things. They’ve only heard about them, but no one can teach them, and no one can really understand them. That’s how it is now, and no one knows how to apply these things. But you all know about “shen dai shou” and “kua dai tui.” These are things that were passed on by me, your shifu. Those in Shen Yun as well as the students and faculty of Fei Tian College and Academy of the Arts have been learning and applying them. At this point, the students are receiving training in Shen Yun’s style of classical Chinese dance, not Beijing Academy’s. So basically, Shen Yun has its own dance feeling, its own yun-lü. What we now have is in fact no longer the same as Beijing Dance Academy’s. If you were to take the same dance routines—just like a few days ago when you were watching a video of some of Beijing Dance Academy’s routines—and perform them using Shen Yun’s shen-fa, then that would look completely different. So, in other words, in the beginning Shen Yun was using their yun-lü, but over time has forged a path of its own. With the way its elongation methods have transformed its yun-lü, Shen Yun has now carved out its own niche. This is something you definitely need to be clear on.
Classical Chinese dance itself really is “classical”—a brilliant culmination of thousands of years of culture. Even Beijing Dance Academy can’t get away from the term “classical,” as it also calls it “classical dance.” Why does the Academy call it classical dance, then? How could a modern, newly invented dance form be called classical? Isn’t that a contradiction? The school merely developed a modern teaching method for it, whereas everything that’s classical about it had long existed, and its basic elements had long existed. That makes sense, right?
In the past, I’ve talked with you about how Chinese culture was divinely inspired, and how China is a special place—its culture was brought about and has been watched over in every way by higher beings. And all people around the world, regardless of race, had once been the people of a dynasty in China; they all incarnated in China for a couple hundred years before reincarnating somewhere else, and that’s how it was for five thousand years. So this culture, to put it directly, is something that everyone around the world experienced before. So when people, regardless of their race or nationality, see the traditional pieces that Shen Yun performs, they have this vague feeling of familiarity—especially when they see the culture brought out in the performance through classical Chinese dance. When they see the portrayal of the universal values that humankind has had since ancient times, and of the thinking, beliefs, and customs from traditional culture, they understand it all. And that is because somewhere in their memories lie experiences from this kind of culture. So when Shen Yun is saving beings through its performances, people are able to understand what they’re watching and be saved. If you were to use something from any other ethnicity or nationality, it wouldn’t have such a big impact and would even be hard to understand.
Let’s talk about another aspect of this. Back in the early period of classical Chinese dance, during prehistory when gods were bestowing culture upon humankind, they knew that people would distort the dance form as it was being passed down. As we know, people are into “progress”—they want to make their mark by creating something new, to advance in a way that’s different from others, or to do things better than others. But this sort of thinking in fact changes tradition. No matter how much you change something, it won’t be as good as the original, which was divinely given. You might think that it’s trendy, it’s really novel, it’s very good and interesting, but it has no substance, and it’s not something that will receive divine protection or be perpetuated by higher beings. So the idea is, divine beings took these things into consideration when they began passing down classical Chinese dance, and so they did not pass it down directly or in its entirety. Some of it was passed down in the court, some through folk traditions, and some through opera, but its true shen-fa was preserved in the martial arts.
You know, historically, the practice of martial arts was a very serious thing. Back in the day, those who practiced them would fight to the death, and would have to use them on the battlefield. If you did them haphazardly, you would get killed, and so no one dared mess around with them, and that effectively kept the shen-fa from changing. Indeed, the sets of movements used in the martial arts have been around for thousands of years, and so their shen-fa was passed down continuously. But in our day, the evil specter of the CCP has come in order to persecute Chinese people and destroy China’s traditions. Seeing that martial arts were part of traditional culture, it sought to destroy that, too. So it had people create new martial arts, and do away with all traditional martial arts. It could be that some spiritual cultivators who live in the mountains have retained the traditional forms, and certainly the real core things would have been preserved with them. But as for the martial arts that can be found out in the world, they have been sabotaged by the wicked CCP and are new martial arts that have completely displaced the traditional forms. And so the traditional martial arts are what had effectively preserved this shen-fa over the course of thousands of years.
In China’s larger cultural sphere, arts influence and complement each other, and can draw upon one another. For example, many art forms have borrowed the art of tumbling (tan-zi-gong), and many have borrowed the shen-fa of martial arts. Right? And another very crucial thing is the feel (shen-yun) that has been handed down as part of opera. The value of shen-yun becomes apparent when you try to express things of substance. In something straightforward like ballet, conveying inner meaning isn’t a requirement. But in classical Chinese dance, on the other hand, you have to have this shen-yun aspect, you need to be able to convey emotional expression, and be able to convey whatever you wish. This is the role that [shen-yun] can play, for example, when depicting characters for Shen Yun dance stories. With this, you can depict characters; with this, you can convey a storyline; and with this, Shen Yun is able to produce dance theater pieces and use them to save people. When you look at things this way, you can see the value and significance of divinely bestowed culture.
Divinely bestowed culture has a particular trait, which is that it must take into consideration the balance of yin and yang in the human world. That is, a single thing is to have both a positive and negative purpose at the same time. So martial arts couldn’t exist for one reason alone and simply be martial arts for its own sake. The word wu had to have a dual use (武 for martial arts, and 舞 for dance); the pronunciation is the same but the written character is different. And the same wu can even be used in multiple ways. When higher beings do something, it’s not just for one purpose alone. Whenever something new appears in the world, it is connected to things in all other dimensions. So they have to consider what impact that thing will have in every dimension: the impact in dimensions both of higher and lower planes, in vertical dimensions, and the impact in horizontal dimensions. When something new emerges, you can only have it take hold in the world if it is something that will have a positive effect in every dimension, and can harmonize well with everything else. Otherwise, the thing won’t be able to take hold, it won’t be recognized, and it won’t be carried forward, as it must be recognized by higher beings. So when a divine being passes something down, he doesn’t just pass down this one thing and disregard everything else. He needs to smooth out all the connections among a massive group of beings. So this isn’t a simple thing, is it? Not at all.
When those in the arts community start arguing over things it can sometimes be quite interesting. People in the Chinese opera world are questioning Beijing Dance Academy, saying things like: How can you say you came up with some kind of classical dance, when all that stuff is from opera? And, actually, it really is theirs—especially the shen-yun—it all comes from opera. But then the martial arts people are saying [to the opera people]: The dance that you use in your opera, that’s all from martial arts. And it’s true, it pretty much all is. Even the shen-yun [used in opera] is something that evolved out of the martial arts’ shen-fa, and that’s the case for all of it. Once you trace it back all the way, you arrive at martial arts. Why did I start off by talking about the dual use of wu? Getting to the root of it and really getting down to what it means, it’s one wu with dual application: used in a cultural or artistic sense, it’s for dance; used in a martial or military sense, it’s for battle. One cultural and one martial; one positive and one negative. That’s just the way human culture is, you know—when you bring something about, it will manifest in two ways in the human world for sure. If you want to bring about something that’s entirely good, you can’t, as the thing must also have something bad to it. And if you want to bring about something bad, you can’t do that either, since you must have something good with it. This is because in the human world things have a balance of good and bad, a balance of yin and yang. And that is how this phenomenon came about, and it’s how human culture is.
So why does everyone—be it in Heaven or on Earth—oppose the vile CCP? Higher beings do not recognize it—it is not good, and neither is it the sort of evil that gods permit. It is a deviation, a greatly despised, truly evil monstrosity. There’s no place for it in the universe. It’s just something that has come about in the end times, when people have a lot of karma. It makes no difference how awful or tyrannical it may act. Higher beings are merely using it to get rid of karma for those with a great deal of karma, and once they are finished with it, they will destroy it. But when a higher being is among humans, spreading Fa teachings of higher planes to save people, that is different, and it is not bound by the principles of the human plane.
Ultimately, what I talked about today was concise, but also accurate. That was indeed how all these things came about. Understood, everyone?
(The dance students and school faculty, in keeping with the Chinese tradition of thanking one’s teacher, conclude by saying, “Xie-xie, Shifu!”)
(Translation provided by ShenYun.com. August 22, 2019.)
- 1. Literally “the method of the body” (身法 shēnfǎ), this includes the major poses and movement paths of classical Chinese dance.
- 2. The Chinese characters for martial arts (武, as in 武術 wǔshù) and dance (舞, as in 舞蹈 wǔdǎo) are homophones, both pronounced third-tone wǔ.
- 3. The first character of this term (身韻 shēnyùn) means “body.” The second refers to the aura or charm of an artist’s expression. The overall concept refers to the expression of the inner beauty, or feel, of classical Chinese dance. Not to be confused with the name Shen Yun (神韻 shényùn).
- 4. Traditional Chinese opera (戲曲 xìqǔ) includes a range of performing arts. One current form familiar to the West is Peking opera.
- 5. Literally “carpet techniques” (毯子功 tǎnzigōng), this term refers to a range of flips and tumbling techniques, which are often practiced on mats for protection.
- 6. The term used here (老師傅 lǎoshīfu) refers to a position traditionally held by one individual in a small performing arts troupe. This person’s responsibilities often included teaching, directing, and being the principal performer.
- 7. Chinese Communist Party.
- 8. Leaning the upper body diagonally forward (衝 chōng) and diagonally backward (靠 kào).
- 9. Drawing the chest in (含 hán) and pushing it out (腆 tiǎn).
- 10. A set of requirements to make movements more aesthetically pleasing, literally: twisting (擰 nǐng), leaning (傾 qǐng), circular (圓 yuán), curved (曲 qǔ).
- 11. The three circular movement paths: circle on the horizontal plane (平圓 píngyuán), circle on the vertical plane (立圓 lìyuán), and figure-eight circle (八字圓 bāzìyuán).
- 12. Artistic mastery of: arm movements (手 shǒu); eye expression (眼 yǎn); poses and form (身 shēn); methods (法 fǎ); and footwork (步 bù).
- 13. To strike a pose (亮相 liàngxiàng).
- 14. The vitality that classical Chinese dance should be infused with: spirit, energy, soul (精 jīng, 氣 qì, 神 shén).
- 15. Rhythm, cadence, or feeling (韻律 yùnlǜ) as applied to dance.
- 16. The body leads the hands (身帶手 shēn dài shǒu); the hips lead the legs (胯帶腿 kuà dài tuǐ).