by Simon Gao
For those raised with Chinese parents, I am sure you have constantly been told how deep and old our history is. Sure it is a bit of a nag, but some of those tales are pretty epic. For those (blessed) with non-Chinese parents, movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero (a more artistic telling of the true story told in The Emperor and the Assassin), and old Jet Li movies give you a glimpse of Chinas past. In those dynasties past, there are stories featuring heroes, monks, and villains fighting for land, honor, and love. Some stories are true; some are based on truth; and others are fiction depicting truth. The more well known religious and mystical figures include the Buddha and Guan-Yin, and the more popular myths, legends, and fictional tales include Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Mulan, and Monkey King and Everlasting Monks Journey to the West. I am not going to try and abridge those stories for you in this article; they are far too complicated in plot and in meaning. I am, however, going to tell you about a performance that will introduce you to the classical Chinese dancer Yang Liping and perhaps inspire you to look a little deeper, through the Internet or books, into the myths and legends of China.
There is a golden mountain,
In the golden mountain lies a golden lake,
In the golden lake stands a golden tree,
In the golden tree there is a golden bird,
The golden bird sings a song of fortune.
While visiting China this summer, my parents took me to see Yang Liping and the Dynamic Yunnan: A Song and Dance Medley. Sure it sounded interesting, but knowing my parents, it could be a disaster. So I asked, Whos Yang Liping? My dad replied with enthusiasm, Shes a classical dancer. My mom adds, Shes amazing. My heart sinks; this really is going to be a disaster. I was expecting to be bored out of my mind as I went into the theater, but as soon as I saw the stage set-up, I thought maybe this will be kind of cool. After a thrilling, awe-inspiring two and a half hours, I told my parents, Wow, this totally makes up for dragging me to all those dinners with your college friends. And trust me, those reunions were as boring as
Im sure you can think of something really boring. Now about Dynamic Yunnan and Yang Liping
The performance was divided into Creation Prologue, Sun, Soil, Homeland, Fire Offering, Pilgrimage, and Spirit of the Peacock Epilogue. Each section relates a bit of Yunnans traditions and culture to the audience. In Creation, we see a rising sun amidst darkness, and with the first strike of the spirit drum, there is light. With the second, there is life. In Sun, the audience is introduced to the various drums used in dance and folklore. I shall introduce two of them. There is the Sun Drum, which represents reproduction, that protected Maihei and Mainiu, ancestors to these people, during the great flood. There is the Barrel Drum, where inside grains and grass are placed, that represents the god of the sky and is invoked during the harvest season. Soil outlines the way the Yunnan people live. They love to dance, to sing, to travel, and, in essence, to live life. One dance in Soil is called The Umbrella of Yi, which shows the people traveling with an umbrella as not to be discouraged by whatever comes ahead. In Homeland, we see the Yunnan peoples connection to their environment. For those who follow the old ways, in every village, there is a sacred tree and a forbidden tree. Each year, offerings are made to those trees and to the spirits that represent the world in which they live. In Fire Offering, we are introduced to the dances of Shamans and mystics. The Dance of the Shaman is performed to drive out demons and pestilence; each Shaman wears a four golden-eyed mask representing a hunting animal moving at night. There is also the mystical dance of fire, representing resurrection in fire. In Pilgrimage, we see the travelers on the way to the celestial kingdom. We see the mountain they must climb, the winds that attempt to drive them back, the sun that scorches them, and the cold that tries to freeze their will. In Spirit of the Peacock, we see the solo dance that made Yang Liping famous.
Beautiful. Graceful. Inspiring. That would be how I describe her dance performances. This may sound really bad, but no one can dance the way she dances and move the way she moves. And it is with such flow; it is perfect. In her dances, she becomes what she is representing. Then you find out that she is almost 42 and just recovering from illness, and you cannot believe what she just did. But she is not just the star performer; she organized this whole masterpiece about the traditions, folklore, and culture of her homeland. She choreographed the dances; she found the performers, 50 plus maybe, in various villages in Yunnan and trained them; and she helped design and make the costumes. When you are watching the performance, you just see the passion behind it all. The only thing that compares is the passion those crazy geniuses that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy had.
She is touring with the “Dynamic Yunnan” dance group through China currently. They are supposed to come to the U.S., Britain, France, and other countries later this year and the next (as “Shangri-la” I hear). If she happens to come to town, go and see it. She is a once in a generation kind of artist and performer, like Picasso, Marlon Brando, and Lance Armstrong. The tickets will probably be pricey but let me put this in perspective. I saw this in China. The ticket was 380 yen/renminbi per person. For a family of three, that would be half a family’s monthly salary, and the theater was packed. The tickets were also sold out months ahead of time; my family and I bought them from other people at higher prices.
This performance is just a glimpse of the myths and culture in a single province in China. There is just no room for me to talk about Shaolin, the Heavenly Court, the dragons, the Everlasting Bird (aka the phoenix), the lions, and a number of other things. I am sure there exist a bunch of fascinating things I have not even heard of. There are plenty of characters and stories for inspiration and your digging; hopefully, this will lead you to something new and wonderful.
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