‘Step Up’ of the Chinese Hip-hop Dance

Background – Hip-hop Culture

Hip hop is an urban youth culture consisting of four individual art forms – rapping and beatboxing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti – that had emerged out of the poverty and vast unemployment of Harlem and South Bronx during the mid-late 1960s[1]. Initially, Western hip-hop was invented by local, working-class youth, mostly of African-American, Caribbean, and Latino. Here, DJs have newly approached to mixing music by emphasizing “breaks” (repetition of climactic, percussive sections), cutting and scratching for adding rhythm. To the constant musical beat created, the breakdancers freely perform in absence of seamless transitions in the song[2]. It had no structure to the dance formation and it relieved the burden of the synchronization of the dancers to the music. As the combination of hip-hop music and dance gained acknowledgment from the mass crowd in the United States, it had gradually gained its popularity and delocalized into a global performing phenomenon.

When hip-hop started in slum areas in New York, the b-boys began to form circles of bodies with individuals taking turns dancing in the “cypher”[3]. This increased the hostile interactions between the dancers and the audience, and among the competing groups with physical nearness and ability to observe the emotional intensity. In 1980s, as this dance culture spread to East Asian countries, including South Korea, China, and Japan, the same b-boying dance forms have evolved into something that the West has not yet seen. Rather than each individual dance, the entire team form a piece of artwork with each contributing a part simultaneously such as one spinning on the floor, one doing the handstand on the side, and so on. Western-oriented Korean influence has played a role in Chinese pop culture development[4]. Once the Chinese youth encountered the hip-hop via South Korea, young Chinese breakdancers admit and mentioned about the video footage as a source of inspiration and education since the early development of the Chinese scene. Their fastest way to learn and express while preserving and finding freedom was through dance[5].

Performances: 1988 and 2010

Although these hip-hop practices cover the visual and aural art realms, I will focus on the hip-hop breakdance and its portrayal in China through media. To further analyze the depth of Chinese hip-hop culture, two Chinese films about street dances are compared and contrasted regarding the dance techniques, background music and the characteristics of dance crews.

Rock Youth, premiered in 1988, is the film about the first encounter and acceptance of the hip-hop breakdance in China. Long Xiang who is a solo artist resigns from his position as a professional dancer in order to break his own shackles of traditional dance, as he is not willing to repeat the similar “old-fashioned” routines on stage[6]. With the help of his friends from motorcycle mob, they create an ensemble to experiment and increase the artistic diversity. They have put up a vibrant youthful stage embodying the theme of rock and roll using the motorcycles as props and incorporating hip-hop, acrobatic dance skills.

Another is Kung Fu Hip Hop 2, released in 2010 in China, incorporates more modern street dances into the film plot, occupied with various themes like love, materialism, and belongingness. A short synopsis is as follows: The main character Letian creates the team Encore with his old friends, and rises to the top of all the breakdance competitions over the years. Through times of practice and developing pioneering performance ideas, they managed to earn fame and satisfaction in their life. Letian is a compassionate character who maintains his teammates with encouragements and embraces others’ hardships. He donates the winning cash awards to Wangzi, whose mother is in need for financial support for the surgery. Female role in this film is Mianmian who is a Latin Dancer forced to learn street dances from Letian to gain fresh, firsthand inspiration in the wide dance field. The storyline builds its suspension when Letian refuses to sign the contract with one of the authoritative industries to dance for them. He knows that once he signs the contract, it would no longer be as free nor flexible to contribute any ideas. This scene shows the value of b-boy dancing, and the audience acknowledges the different but similar purposes for joining the crew as well as the motivation to street dance in general. The finale of immense dance competition concludes with the grand prize favoring Encore as they brought out the new dance forms with the Latin and Chinese dance integrated into their regular breakdance arrangement.

Criticism

These growing endemic cultural practices in China, at the same time, received many critics condemning the lack of Chinese traditional musical skills, and not being original due to reliance on sampling music records from the West[7]. This was true in both films where the majority of the background music they played were definitely not authentic to its culture and style. People also thought that the breakdance exploits, rather than challenges, the stereotypes built upon such as the uneducated, lower social class people in an assembly, rebelling against the society. However, in modern dance society, b-boying has become one distinct contemporary dance style; it allows one to feel pride and redefine identity. Ethnographic researchers suggest that young people appropriate “imported” culture to help construct their ethnic-social identities[8]. Significance to breakdance is the freedom to find one’s own style in expressing their emotions and creativity through dancing: the idea that appealed to many of the young dancers.

 

Although the main idea of these films is not to promote Chinese-style hip-hop, the audience gains an opportunity to glance at how the Chinese youth seeks for new dance formation and techniques from the West and through incorporating Chinese traditional art forms to bring synergetic effects. Throughout the analysis of these two Chinese Rock Youth and Kung Fu Hip Hop 2, I want to discuss whether it is feasible to say that the Chinese hip-hop culture could be considered into a development of a new subgenre in global hip-hop, and how such genre drew upon the youth’s interest. Thus, it is possible to view the presence of hip-hop in China as the product of the evolution of hip-hop dance as it makes an international movement.

 

Response to Western Hip-hop in Dance styles 

Screenshot from Rock Youth:  Synchronized finale performance

Screenshot from Rock Youth:
Synchronized finale performance

Although the two films are produced at different decades, both show some similarities and distinctions where the audience can perceive the evolution of hip-hop culture in China. One of the apparent differences in hip-hop dance styles is the formation of the dance routine. In Rock Youth, the dance crew is formed by the dance academy and they are taught professionally under the instructors with synchronized steps and movements. This was the initial approach to Western hip-hop by the inland Chinese in 1980s as they imitated the movements but yet lacked skills to highlight on individuals’ b-boying skills[9]. While the dancers in Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 uses the large space to do advanced techniques they mastered such as head spin, tumbling, popping and acrobatic kicks. Notwithstanding the heavy influence in Western hip-hop in Chinese hip-hop culture, Encore’s breakdance seems to diverge from the imitations and create its own.

Also, Kung Fu Hip Hop 2, Letian states that “street dance is like a Drunken Fist, and the music is like the wine.[10]” Given that the dancers recognize how the background music affects the overall style by defining a beat and clarifying every  single movement, none of these two movies weigh the importance on mixing the composition to suit the Chinese-style dance form to make it more Chinese; but rather bring out the Western flair to the audience.

Screenshot from Kung Fu Hip Hop 2: Integration of Chinese traditional elements

Screenshot from Kung Fu Hip Hop 2:
Integration of Chinese traditional elements

While borrowing from Western foreign hip-hop elements, such as sampling music techniques, baggy clothings, and dance styles, Chinese hip-hop has also developed its distinct local characteristics by introducing layers of Chinese traditions over the beat and incorporation of martial arts. The breakdancers in Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 use props like nunchuks, and acrobatic techniques of flying rotational kicks into the dance sequence. Wangzi choreographs such sections to bring about the charismatic energy into an aggressive dance appeal. This type of dance is not apparent in the dance academy-taught routines like in Rock Youth. The product of this innovative attempt constructs a different sort to breakdance league, and is praised for creativity in the film. The dance style that Letian promotes is the freedom to express and showcase the individual’s strength via breakdance. It shows that they appreciate the national and cultural identity, which also appeals to the domestic audience. However, the adaptation of Western dance components can be seen where there is an addition of salsa, disco, and ballet sequence. Because the hip-hop culture has not fully settled in China commercially and artistically, it is obvious and tolerable that these performances to still contain heavy portions of Western-style dance genres. It is important to consider and concentrate on how the Chinese attempts to derive national style from the Western influence, not so much on why or what.

Youth’s Determination to Breakdance

Moreover, the teaching and learning process seem to limit the relationships among the members to just “teammates”; thus their motivation to join the crew is not as sincere. In Kung Fu Hip Hop 2, Letian cares for his members as they all joined Encore in seeking for a community where they desired to belong, and share common interest in street dancing. It is true that the purposes of breakdancing does not play a crucial role in answering the question of enhancement of conventional Chinese hip-hop, but it is suggestive enough to claim that the motivations to dance help shaping and creating the meaningful dance routines. For instance, Encore values the intimate relationships among the members so they added in the section where the dancers collaborate by tumble over one another, spin while holding hands thus create one move with two subjects.

The purpose for youth affection towards hip-hop has changed over the artistic history in China. Motley states, “it appears that members of the global hip-hop culture rebel against the dominant culture, perhaps due to their perception that they are discounted by their elders.[11]” The hip-hop in United States originated in order to heighten the voice of the ethnic and social minority along with allied youth for a treatment and response that can be noticed by the society. As it made a diasporic move to East Asia, it contained similar overall purpose but more personal expression of inferiorities and undesirable emotions such as isolation and betrayal. It is not the case for Long Xiang in Rock Youth to pursue hip-hop because he sought for newer, inspirational dance form that was neither traditional nor mundane in his dance career. Throughout the 2010 film, the audience can sense that the majority of Encore members yearn for belongingness and ownership to their talent. “In the world of street dance, no one tells you if you’re good. You dance whenever you want to, however, you want to. It’s yours,[12]” teaches Letian. This quote reveals that the freedom to convey thoughts is granted to each person with fellow dancers supporting the other; this is what “lost” Chinese young dancers was lacking thus looking for. In this context, hip-hop and breakdance have become a “vehicle for global youth affiliation and a tool for revitalizing local identity all over the world, and as the universally recognized popular art genre also draw the attention to local specificities.[13]

 

Kung Fu Hip Hop 2: Dancing in the finale "cypher" battle http://lollicraze.wordpress.com/category/movie/page/6/

Kung Fu Hip Hop 2: Dancing in the finale “cypher” battle
http://lollicraze.wordpress.com/category/movie/page/6/

From viewing the finale performances in both movies, there seem to be a weak correlation between the martial arts aesthetic being the only Chinese elements assimilated and the development of the new separate subgenre of Chinese hip-hop as the part of the global hip-hop society. The music and beat used to finalize the performance are not necessarily local or have been adjusted to suit the Chinese traditional style. While the older street dance film, Rock Youth, has shown the imitation of Western hip-hop dance with no further attempt to advance the existing hip-hop culture, the focal theme of more current Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 was not on the Chinese reinterpretation of global hip-hop. Synchronized and paired dance shown in Rock Youth sprouting into individual’s unique skills contributing to a whole show in Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 illustrates the rapid evolution towards modern Chinese hip-hop community. Despite the relatively minute allusion of Chinese traditional elements in the hip-hop dance, there is a definitely increasing trend of China’s effort to branch out and stand out in Eastern Asia as the films like Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 challenges the similar film series Step Up of United States.

 

Discussion and Relevance

We started the course with what is art, for whom is the art for, and how the art should serve, based on the Mao Zedong’s talks. He claims that, “whether more advanced or elementary, all our literature and art are for the masses of the people; they are created for the workers, peasants, and soldiers and are for their use.[14]” Since the original hip-hop is not for the bourgeois, it is more appropriate as hip-hop cultures are produced and designed for the lower class primarily and eases their social interest. This gives the foreground of any art form to be appreciated in the Chinese society aimed to perform before the wide range of audience who desires to see it. The most relevant quote by Letian describes how the dance serves people: “Street dance is the most direct way of releasing your emotions. It closes the emotional gap between our work and the audiences.[15]Encore’s finale breakdance formation is created at their will intertwined with expression of their hardships and inspiration in one, thus it can be transformed into a performing art that meets the demands of the struggle of the broad masses. Though Chinese hip-hop dance is not yet distinctly stable nor commercial enough to declare its individuality at a global market, it parallels with the “New Wine, Old Bottle” ideology: the fresh performing dance form overriding the existing arts and be considered as “new”. Response to Chinese hip-hop is clearly illustrated by the respective parables because the modern street dance, essentially from the West, is on its way to achieve its own style.

When two main characters, Long and Letian, introduced the Western breakdance style to their dance field, one imitated evading from local common Chinese dance while the other developed from it to a further “avant-garde” piece of dance work. As we have discussed about the association between the popularity and experimental forms of art, the initial approach to hip-hop seems much avant-garde at first from the Chinese perspective. The themes of love, materialism, and egocentrism may appear cliché, however such themes illustrate the topic of “pop avant-garde.[16]” In Kung Fu Hip Hop 2, Wangzi left the crew to sign the contract with the industry, selling the dance arrangements for money, then find himself in despair when he realizes that money cannot fulfill his desire and greed. Letian and mianmian also confront conflict when the difference in social class obstructs them from love. Both cases deal with the materialism derived from egocentrism.

In addition, we investigated the idea of what is Chinese and its performance culture in Sinospheric globe. Hip-hop culture is easily transmitted outside and within the national boundaries via film and the arts community, known as globalization. The two films discussed are produced and premiered in China, aiming to gain domestic’s attention rather than stimulate the foreign film market. By targeting the domestic people as the main audience, it gives a hint of what the directors want to depict and share: the insight of Western b-boy and street dance style performed by the Chinese youth. This further supports the argument of Chinese hip-hop not much diverse from the prototypical Western breakdance. The interactions between the globe and the Chinese hip-hop community exhibit the idea of transcultural aspect. According to Pavis, it is defined as “bridging of several cultures more or less radically separated in time and space, by borrowing themes, forms, ideologies, etc. from various cultures[17].” Letian takes advantage of borrowing and adaptations of dance and music styles in Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 as he responds to the hip-hop’s global appeal and commercial success in China. From the same article, the author speaks about the cultural collage where the intercultural theatres “cite, adapt, reduce, enlarge, combine and mix various elements without concern for a scale of importance or value.[18]” At the same time, hip-hop itself is a postmodern music for which the creative process is to “cut and mix” different musical styles and cultural references, allowing for an unceasing process of “hybridization and syncretism[19]”. Perhaps the Chinese street dance does not wish to develop a new genre under the global hip-hop; they maybe only interested in sharing the common cultural ground.

Bibliography

Ferrari, Rossella. “Pop Goes the Avant-garde: Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China.” 2012. Book.

Garrett, Charles. “Early Hip-Hop.” In Musicology 123 course. Lecture. 4 Nov., 2013.

Kipnis, Andrew, and Wilcox, Emily, and et. al. “‘Selling Out’ Post Mao: Dance Labor and the Ethics of Fulfillment in Reform Era China.” In Chinese Modernity and the Individual Psyche. 2012. Book.

“Kung Fu Hip Hop 2” 2010. Film. 15 Dec., 2013.

Motley, Carol M. and Henderson, Geraldine R. “The Global Hip-hop Diaspora: Understading the Culture.” Journal of Business Research (2008):61.020. Print. Pp 243-253.

Pavis, Patrice. “Towards a Theory of Interculturalism in Theatre?” In The Intercultural Performance Reader. 1996. Print. Pp. 1-26.

“Rock Youth.” 1989. Film. 15 Dec., 2013.

“Rock Youth (摇滚青年).” Baidu Entry. 18 Dec., 2013.

Smith, Brian A. “From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution and Popular Culture.” University of Nebraska Press (2008):16.1-2. Print. Pp. 371-372

“Stanley (Dragon Dance Studio) Interview | The Freshest Kids in China.” 15 Jan., 2012. Video. 18. Dec., 2013.

Um, Hae-Kyung. “The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders: Korean hip-hop and ‘cultural reterritorialisation’.” Popular Music (2013):32.1. Print. Pp 51-64.

Wilcox, Emily. “Unit 6: Performing Interculturalism.” In Asian 280 course. Lecture. 18, 20 Nov., 2013.

Zedong, Mao. “Speech at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and the Arts.” Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature. 1942. Print. pp. 458-484

Zhao, George Zhi. “The Freshest Kids in China.” The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read. 6 Aug., 2010. Web. 16 Dec., 2013.


[1] Zhao, George Zhi. “The Freshest Kids in China.”

[2] Garrett, Charles. “Early Hip-Hop.”

[3] Zhao, George Zhi. “The Freshest Kids in China.”

[4] Um, Hae-Kyung. “The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders…”

[5] “Stanley (Dragon Dance Studio) Interview”

[6] “Rock Youth (摇滚青年).” Baidu Entry.

[7] Smith, Brian A. “From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution and Popular Culture.”

[8] Motley, Carol. M. “The global hip-hop Diaspora: Understanding the Culture.”

[9] Garrett, Charles. “Early Hip-Hop.”

[10] Film “Kung Fu Hip Hop 2”

[11] Motley, Carol. M. “The global hip-hop Diaspora: Understanding the Culture.”

[12] Film “Kung Fu Hip Hop 2”

[13] Um, Hae-Kyung. “The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders…”

[14] Zedong, Mao. “Speech at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Arts.”

[15] Film “Kung Fu Hip Hop 2”

[16] Ferrari, Rossella. “Pop Goes the Avant-garde: Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China.”

[17] Pavis, Patrice. “Towards a Theory of Interculturalism in Theatre?”

[18] Pavis, Patrice. “Towards a Theory of Interculturalism in Theatre?”

[19] Um, Hae-Kyung. “The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders…”