Contemporary Yangge: The Moving History of a Chinese Folk Dance Form

By Gerdes, Ellen V. P. | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Yangge: The Moving History of a Chinese Folk Dance Form


Gerdes, Ellen V. P., Asian Theatre Journal


Since the beginning of its rate, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently claimed that the performing arts "should assist in the process of educating the masses" (Mackerras 1981: 9). The development of yangge dance is particularly linked to the CCP's policies during both the party's establishment and the Cultural Revolution. In this paper, I use personal experience and embodied research to complicate the existing conventional historical narrative that asserts the political exploitation of yangge in modern Chinese history.

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Yangge Dance and the CCP's Rise to Power

Even today, many Chinese residents and scholars refer to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 as "liberation." By posing members of the Chinese upper class as oppressive, the CCP was able to generate liberation as a cause among peasants and workers. Mackerras cites the use of the performing arts for "propaganda and inspiration purposes" as an important factor in the CCP's victory (1981: 9). The CCP actually employed yangge dance to promote the CCP and its policies and to encourage people to effect change en masse. In his dissertation on Cultural Performance in China, Noble describes yangge's role:

   Yang'ge was a popular cultural form instrumental for the CCPs
   implementation of the worker, peasant, and soldier artistic and
   cultural policy, as espoused by Mao Zedong in his 'Tanan Talks" in
   1942. [...] It was taught at the Lu Xun Academy of Art and
   Literature, as well as party headquarters, factories, and schools,
   and it was a central performance genre in mass assemblies. It
   represented the crystallization of the mass-line policy, offered a
   convenient vehicle for acting out political ideology, and [...] it
   incited revolutionary fervor and patriotic pride. (Noble 2003: 111)

Authors divide yangge into a number of historical categories including traditional or old, Revolutionary or Yan'an, and contemporary (Graezer 1999: 32; Wang 1992: 36 cited in Noble 2003: 107).

Thought to have originated during the Song Dynasty (959-1278 cE), yangge began as a dance linked to agricultural ceremony and can be literally translated as "rice [planters'] [popular] song" (Graezer 1999: 31). Yangge, as Noble clarifies, "is a broad category of Chinese performance referring to a form of dance or stylized movement, singing or chanting, and role-playing with wide-ranging regional variations" (2003: 107). Graezer, author on the development of yangge, adds that yangge "is a collective activity which belongs to the popular culture" (1999: 32). Because peasants throughout China practiced yangge as a collective dance in community celebrations of agricultural events, holidays, and temple festivals (Noble 2003: 110), it was an important target for the CCP, which sought to unify the lower classes for one cause.

The specific movement form of yangge is key to its cooptation by the CCP. The old or traditional form often involved a procession, including role-playing, a troupe leader, and movement in "paired symmetry" (Noble 2003: 109). Through her analysis of one type of performance, named pao da chang (running around the big arena), Graezer exposes the follow-the-leader nature of yangge. Many dancers, all holding a fan and a scarf in their hands, follow the movements of the person at the head of the procession. The pathway that the procession takes results in many different shapes, including one or two lines criss-crossing back and forth, one line snaking back and forth like a tail, and one or two lines spiraling around (Graezer 1999: 32). Noble adds, 'The large performance's most important features are the swinging hip dance movements, called niu, and the fluid, quickly changing patterns formed by the troupe" (Yang 1992: 56 cited in Noble 2003: 115). Additionally, gestural movements symbolic of everyday activities frame yangge as a dance of people with ordinary lives and skills. …

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