Sun Ying: an icon of Chinese Dance

Artist Biography

Sun Ying
(孙颖 汉唐 search)

Sun Ying, born in 1929 and recently passed, was a young adult when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established. He existed at the forefront of new China’s cultural revolution by inaugurating the first generation of professionally trained dancers in the PRC (Wilcox 2012, pg 207). At this time, art became a political tool to develop a nationally-recognized culture (Jiang 2019, pg 307). As a dancer of the “old generation” who earned his professional status as Wu Xiaobang’s prodigee, Ying came to challenge a lot of acculturation and westernization of Chinese dance forms when ballet started to bleed into the east. He played a central role in resisting those changes, and made it a goal to establish a uniquely Chinese way of moving. Unfortunately, Ying’s strong criticism of State-sponsored art made him a political target. He was forced to participate in labor and reeducation camps for 21 years from 1958-1979. Ying spent a lot of his time in persecution with other condemned scholars. He took advantage of their presence, investing himself in Chinese history, which would later come to affect his creative and technical process. Upon release, Ying returned to the Beijing Dance School where he worked prior to reeducation. He was not reinstated into professional dance, instead he was named head librarian. Though limited, Ying was determined to change the face of Chinese dance and saw opportunity to spread his ideas through academic writing instead of teaching in the studio. He found ways to create outside of the institution. A successful collaboration with the Chinese Opera and Dance Theater in 1985 popularized his name once more in the art sphere with his acclaimed dance drama, Tongque Ji. In a fictional story of two court dancers, Ying codified his movement vocabulary which would become the basis for his technique, Han-Tang. His artistic success continued with the premiere of female group dance Ta Ge in 1997. Shortly after, the Beijing Dance Academy created an undergraduate track program dedicated to Sun Ying’s Han-Tang school to honor his work and now, legacy (Wilcox 2012, pg 207-212). Through deeper analysis of his technical, artistic, and choreographic motivations, I explore Ying’s engagement with and contributions to the long-held debate of what constitutes “Chineseness.”

Sun Ying in the studio
(孙颖 汉唐 search)

Tongque Ji supports Han-Tang

Tongque Ji allowed Sun Ying’s Han-Tang technique to be formally recognized. The birth of Han-Tang technique came out of two key rejections: that of western styles and that of Beijing opera. He did not support western influence on Chinese dance forms. He thought borrowing western style was incongruous with the mission for formation of a distinctly Chinese national identity (Wilcox 2012, pg 218-220). Ying also argued that current Chinese dance forms, namely Beijing opera, misrepresented the Chinese identity since they pulled from time periods of women’s oppression. To subvert that, he looked into Chinese history pre-dating foot binding to highlight more honorable parts of Chinese history (Wilcox 2012, pg 219-220). The Han and Tang dynasties were referenced for their histories of great artistic success. In the time of Han, dance was brought forward into the performance sphere with the creation of variety shows that blended dance, music, acrobatics, and horsemanship. The Tang Dynasty followed which made dance a subject of poetry. Women had a strong presence in Chinese dance until foot-binding became integrated into culture. Their inability to move compromised their role in the arts, and men took their place (Frederiksen 2016, pg 23). Ying used the history of dance and women in Han and Tang dynasties to create a national identity that Chinese people could be proud of. Ultimately, Tongque Ji can be seen as an effort to transform the existing Chinese dance scene and challenge the boundaries of classical form.

2008 Tongque Ji program page
(Beijing Dance Academy Archives)
Sun Ying instructing Han-Tang
(孙颖 汉唐 search)

Tongque Ji Performance Analysis

The plot follows two court dancers: Zheng Feipeng and Wei Sinu. As close friends and dance partners, their playful dynamic is made clear from the first dance they share. They grow up together under Emperor Cao Cao’s rule, but when he dies, they’re both pushed out of the Tongque stage. Wei overreacts emotionally and violates the law, resulting in punishment by blinding by the new usurping ruler. Zheng and Wei are later reunited to dance together. At this time, Zheng is unaware of Wei’s blindness, but becomes suspicious when he makes frequent mistakes in the routine. When she learns of his pain, she cuts her sleeves and discards her rose hairpin, a symbol of disrespect to her status in the kingdom. Zheng’s life is spared, but she is reduced to a mistress. In her despair, she realizes her love for Wei but recognizes they can never be together. Desperate for a way out, she comes close to committing suicide, but changes her mind after seeing a foot drum. Zheng began her wild search for Wei, but when she finds him, there is an execution officer waiting close by. The dance drama ends with her leaving her foot drum and a lock of hair with Wei before following the officer to her execution (Beijing Dance Academy Archives).

Zheng and Wei during their duet on the Tongque stage
(Beijing Dance Academy Archives)

Tongque Ji excerpt: https://www.bilibili.com/video/av42251429

Tongque Ji is the only dance drama I know of that showcases the life of dancers through dance. Ying captured the uncontrollable fate of dancers perfectly; just as court dancers are controlled by the court, modern day dancers are controlled by power structures that operate beyond their reach. The spirit of Sun Ying might smite me for saying this, but Tongque Ji felt like a story ballet. I recognize that I see through the lens of my predominately western dance background, but I couldn’t help but draw strong similarities. Acts were introduced with heavily staged character, folk-like dances and there was a principal couple experiencing tragedy just like the stories of Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, and many more. On a more technical note, I also noticed a lot of lines similar to the arabesque position in ballet.

Ta Ge Performance Analysis

Ta Ge, or Foot Stamp Song, is Ying’s most popular work. It pulls from a participatory Han dance, that is now considered a classical form (Frederiksen 2016, pg 158). The folk dance became elevated to classical status because of context: where performances were held, who was dancing, and who was watching. Its court adoption ensured its historical preservation through visual and literary arts (Frederiksen 2016, pg 158-159).

Ta Ge performance

Even though Tongque Ji laid the groundwork for Ying’s Han-Tang technique, Ta Ge stands as its ideological solidification. The technique pulls from Chinese history pre-dating foot binding because Ying did not want to represent a limited woman. He did not want to uphold deformed bodies to represent women; Ta Ge’s choreography directly represents  this sentiment. He rid his dance of small, shuffling steps and small, twisted positions that are normally seen in recognized Chinese dance forms to reimagine the Chinese woman. In watching some recorded footage of Han-Tang technique classes, I can see the embodiment of more expansive movement to support the transformation of the feminine role. Exaggerated, but controlled breathing moved into sequential movement using the entire body. Movement patterns were always circular, spinning from a low/small place to a big/high place. There was also emphasis on gaze; the open chest and eyes gestured towards an open heart. I felt that the women in the class were projecting their inner voices by dancing (Wilcox archives).

In five minutes time, Ta Ge showcases the strength and soft power of women. 12 women take up enormous amounts of space with sweeping movements and dynamic formation changes. Their long green robes are adorned with long sleeves to be thrown while dancing, giving the impression of even more length in the arms at full extension. Movement-wise, I noticed a lot of hip swaying, body position asymmetry, unique angles, and small shifts of the head and shoulders. Unlike other Chinese dance forms where women normally contort themselves into small, twisted positions to convey modesty, Ying’s choreography had women taking long strides and initiating movement from the inside, out. Another thing I noticed in Ta Ge were the entrances and exits because at the start and end of the piece, the dancers were never fully offstage. Two lines of women started halfway onstage and ended halfway off, so the space was never empty. There was always a woman in the space. I saw this represent the ever-presence of women, which closely mirrors the sentiment of the “Women’s Country” in Yang Liping’s Dynamic Yunnan. Like Ying, Liping reshapes how traditional women are perceived by subverting the very tradition they come out of. Both pieces reclaim space for women. Additionally, dancing in unison provided more visual support for the theme of female strength. Perhaps getting at the universality of womanhood, all the women moving together gives the impression of a united front, an unstoppable force. They embody a different kind of femininity; one that has influential momentum and permanence.

Depiction of Ta Ge on postal stamps
(孙颖 汉唐 search)

Tying the two performances together:

Tongque Ji and Ta Ge engage with the idea of “Chineseness” by exemplifying different complexities of the female form. Ta Ge suited my taste more because women were portrayed as a lasting force with powerful capabilities. Women reclaimed their space and subverted the traditional narrative told about them. Their dance was a direct rejection of their oppressive history which directs the opening of their new beginning: strongholds of Chinese society. Tongque Ji, on the other hand, contributed to the tired narrative of what happens to a woman when she’s in love or doesn’t do what she’s told. Just like Rhinoceros in Love and Hedda, Aspiration Sky High, the woman is brutally punished for acting on her own volition. In Tongque Ji, Zheng is banished by the court when she expresses deep sadness for Wei’s blindness and is executed when she decides to admit her love for him. In Rhinoceros in Love, Mingming ends up kidnapped and tied to a chair by an obsessive “lover” who is unable to cope with her previous rejections of him. Hedda in Hedda, Aspiration Sky High kills herself out of despair (as a result of lover’s betrayal) and because society has told her that she needs to be with a man who can support her, instead of one that can make her happy. Over and over again, central female characters in well-known Chinese performances end up dead because they love someone they’re “not supposed to love” or they act out of turn. Because Ying’s creative manifesto intentionally pulls from redeeming parts of Chinese history to empower women, I’m confused by the plot line of Tongque Ji. What is he trying to say about women through Zheng? How does Zheng represent a woman free of oppression? Between Ta Ge and Tongque Ji, Ying creates conflict in the Chinese female identity, but over the course of his artistic career, he contributed far more positive change than negative to the portrayal of women on stage.

The “Chineseness” debate continues

Although dance in China has a history of over 5000 years, the concept of Chinese classical Dance (CCD) has only been officially recognized within the last 60 years or so. Since its conception, there’s been fierce debate about what constitutes CCD. The duty to represent the quintessential Chinese identity begs a lot of important questions. How can China, a country with countless traditions and histories, possibly be represented by one dance form? Should traditions of ancient China be preserved? Should the image of China be modernized to stay current? Artists who’ve taken to the development of CCD have been criticized, acclaimed, loved, and hated (Jiang 2019, pg 304). There doesn’t seem to be a unified consensus on what defines “Chineseness.”

Interestingly enough, Chinese national music has struggled in a similar debate about Chinese identity. Over the course of Chinese history, its music transformed “corresponding to specific social and ideological underpinnings of historical periods alongside the changing concept of China as a nation” (Lau 2008, pg 31-33). People agreed that there should be a form of national music, but there were all sorts of opinions on what it should actually be. When western music made its way to the east, there was pressure embrace it because of what it represented: supremacy and modernization. Those who wanted Chinese music to follow the western model wanted to be seen as a competitor with larger foreign powers. Those who rejected western music did so because they felt it did not fit into “Chineseness” (Lau 2008). Concepts from the west could not possibly represent concepts from the east. Sound familiar? Sun Ying posited the same thoughts when balletic principles started to diffuse into Chinese classical forms of dance. Although music and dance remain two different artistic mediums, their engagement with the debate of what constitutes the Chinese spirit remains extremely similar.

Concluding remarks

Sun Ying is a “maverick” in the world of Chinese dance. Recognized as talented, outspoken, and innovative, Ying’s contributions to dance added to the robust national character of China. He used historical evidence from the Han and Tang dynasties to reimagine dance for women, creating a form where women could embody their most powerful selves and exercise momentum over their space. Ying popularized himself through his work outside of the institution that tried to suppress his voice. His artistic works (Tongque Ji and Ta Ge as the most noteworthy) were too virtuosic to not be recognized, which led to the creation of an undergraduate program in his name. Although Ying’s technique is struggling to flourish without his leadership, I know his  legacy will live on through his dancers, choreography, and ideology. I’ll end my analysis with Ying’s commentary on his own professional endeavors.

Over the past few decades I’ve had a constant dream, which I guess is also a kind of desire for retaliation: that is, to stand up in this professional world of dance and create a Chinese trademark. In a contemporary Chinese dance world that remains in many ways a “martyr to the West”, I want to make Chinese forms, Chinese style, and that uniquely Chinese kind of beauty occupy their own piece of ground. I wish to carry forward and develop a nation’s creative wisdom, to give full expression to the greatness of China’s cultural history, and to embody, in a socialist context, the national characteristics of Chinese cultural heritage…In order to resolve the quandary of how to make Chinese dance dramas speak with “Chinese language” – or, the problem of how to develop a national style in dance, the creation of this dance drama (Tongque Ji) has taken me the longest. I’ve spent several decades in the slow process of studying, deciphering and extracting a dance language from historic artifacts. Regarding thought and method on the creation of dance dramas I’ve also done my best to seek models in Chinese experience and tradition. My basic desire is simply this: “may the dance be beautiful, the drama moving,” with Chinese style and Chinese flavor.

Sun Ying, Director’s Note in the program of Tongque Ji
(Beijing Dance Academy Archives)

Sources:

Frederiksen, Lynn E. Chinese Dance in the Vast Land and Beyond. Wesleyan University Press, 2016.

Jiang, Dong. Forthcoming. “The Dilemma of Chinese Classical Dance: Traditional or Contemporary?.” In Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia, Katherine Mezur and Emily Wilcox, eds. (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

Lau, Frederick. 2008. “Constructing National Music.” In Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 30-58

Wilcox, Emily. “Han-Tang Zhongguo Gudianwu and the Problem of Chineseness in Contemporary Chinese Dance: Sixty Years of Creation and Controversy.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 29 no. 1, 2012, p. 206-232. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/atj.2012.0021.

Translated programs from Tongque Ji (Beijing Dance Academy 2009) provided by Professor E. Wilcox

Pictures: 孙颖 汉唐