Dance in the People’s Republic of China


A review of The Dialectics of Virtuosity: Dance in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-2009, by Emily Elissa Wilcox.

In this highly readable and intellectually provocative dissertation, Emily Wilcox makes a convincing and often surprising case for the intimacy of the relationship between the invention, codification and standardization of, on the one hand, specifically “Chinese” dance forms since the birth of the People’s Republic and of imaginings of Chinese culture and the Chinese nation-state on the other. She leavens this cogent historical and theoretical analysis of dance’s privileged place in China’s project of socialist nation building with a sensitive description of the parlous contemporary state of the vocation and its practitioners. Both of these foci are in turn grounded in arresting and viscerally embodied accounts of both her own fieldwork as a trained dancer in various professional and educational contexts across China and of her many informants’ lives in the profession — stories that stretch across six decades of turbulent change. The resulting text will appeal even to those with no more than a passing interest in dance itself.

The dissertation comprises a preface, six chapters (the last of which incorporates a short conclusion), a chapter-by-chapter list of references and a thoughtful and engaging appendix on the experience of conducting a more than usually embodied sort of ethnographic research. While Wilcox is conversant with broader theoretical literatures, both Chinese and Western (among others, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Jacques Rancière, Katherine Verdery and Mao Zedong himself are key interlocutors) this work breaks significant new ground of its own. The first half of the dissertation (Chapters 1-3) tacks back and forth between a focus on the embodied existence and changing social significance of the figure of the professional dancer (and professionalized dance more broadly) between Maoist and post-Reform China on the one hand and, on the other, the larger ecologies of systematic state support for dance and other modes of cultural work that have come under increasing threat in recent decades.

Chapter 1 walks the reader through two processes of becoming, one individual, one collective. The first, characterized as “tempering” one’s body (molian 磨练; as one would temper steel) is nothing less than the process of becoming a dancer itself. The second comprises the larger historical and institutional contexts of social reform, artistic standardization and the invention of tradition in 1950s China that informed the creation of “Chinese” dance as a set of state-sanctioned forms. In this latter story, dance is both singular and representative. Singular because after the birth of the PRC, a set of standard(ized) dance forms were produced essentially de novo given the non-existence of dance as “an independent field of professional artistic practice… for about one thousand years” (p. 20). Representative because the centralization and standardization of state sanctioned forms was occurring concurrently across a large number of domains. Emerging from this process of invention and standardization via the Maoist valorization of physical labor and artistic virtuosity, was an understanding of the professionally trained dancer as an embodiment of “the ideal agent of socialist revolution” (p. 24).

The era of state support for and public prominence of dance in which this vision emerged now serves as the emotional, historical and nostalgic background against which dancers’ contemporary privations and disillusionments are interpreted. The latter form the basis of Chapter 2, the first of two chapters that focus on the status of dance and dancers on the contemporary scene. Central here are the individual predicaments of dancers who are now virtuosos in an art that has lost its social significance. In particular, it asks what it means to “eat art” (i.e., live off one’s skills) after the abolition of “iron rice bowl” (tie fanwan 铁饭碗) of lifelong employment of the Maoist era at a moment when, once a “vocation,” dance is now for too many simply a “livelihood” (p. 35).

Chapter 3 shifts its attention to the vicissitudes of institutional structures. In it, Wilcox traces the history of the the Chongqing Municipal Song and Dance Troupe across “four major periods of development and change since the 1940s” (p. 63), focusing particularly on the effects of recent system change (gaizhi 改制) on both the aesthetic and material conditions of dance in today’s China. In a discussion that builds upon the work of Katherine Verdery and Elizabeth Dunn, Wilcox describes the decline of a larger ecology of systematic state support for dance and other modes of artistic production under high socialism. Here she stresses that the processes involved are not simply local instantiations of western originals (i.e., “privatization”) but open-ended and uncertain transformations wherein the “the market that is introduced is one in which the state and the commercial cannot be separated” (p. 90).

In this context of complex state-market interconnection she analyzes the troupe’s first post-system reform production, City Beauty (2008), highlighting an ironic aspect of the contemporary scene. The retreat of the state from involvement in the arts, she argues, has led to a greater, not lesser, sameness in large-scale cultural productions. This sameness results not so much from (self-)censorship as it does from the new material constraints on performance stemming from the radical devaluation of local knowledge as the basis for the generation of works of national significance. As a result of these and related changes, many dancers are concerned that the “new system of organization for dance production that has resulted from system change “will ultimately be unable to allow dancers to ‘fulfill their potential’ as skilled artists” (p. 90).

From a purely chronologically standpoint, this would be the end of things, but for Wilcox it forms a point of departure for the more thematically organized chapters of the second half of the dissertation. Its final three chapters comprise a discussion of the dynamic and mutually constitutive relationship between dance forms and ideas of Chinese-ness since the birth of the People’s Republic. The emphasis here shifts from the co-production of dancing bodies and the system that trained and sustained them to the creation and codification of “Chinese” dance forms in the years following the communist victory in 1949 (even as broader notions of what counted as “Chinese” were themselves being created, codified and standardized).

Chapter 4 begins with a thoughtful, explicitly Chakrabartian rereading of standard approaches to epistemology and aesthetics under communism that seeks to provincialize Cold war era dismissals of Socialist Realist art, replacing them with a nuanced reading of the combination of socialist and classical Chinese forms and categories such productions represent. In particular, Wilcox emphasizes the enmeshment of socialist understandings of the power of art to programmatically reshape the real (rendering “traditional culture” an object to be both protected and developed) and a dialectical understanding of the real and the virtual embodied in the Chinese aesthetic terms dianxing 典型 (“type”) and yijing 意境 (“artistic realm”) (pp. 103-107).

This conceptualization of art’s task not as mimetic representation but as the production of a sort of generative exemplar that simultaneously accesses deep truth and aids in the ongoing reshaping of reality in its terms, is of central importance to the mutually (re)forming relationship between “Chinese” dance and Chinese-ness she discusses broadly in Chapter 4 through the analysis of three recent prize-winning compositions (in gudianwu 古典舞 Chinese ethnic dance — here Uyghur — and Chinese folk dance) and then in greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6. The latter are extended explorations of Chinese ethnic dance (Mongolian dance in particular) and gudianwu respectively.

Chapter 5 engages in productive dialogue with both Jacques Rancière’s concept of “aesthetic politics” and Thomas Mullaney’s work on ethnic classification to explore how, “The making of Chinese ethnic minority dance has been an important part of the state’s ‘engineering’ of ethnic identity and culture in the People’s Republic of China” (p. 126). Yet the significance of such forms is not limited to the level of official representation. Wilcox, by contrast describes a situation in which, Chinese minority ethnic dance makes possible new arrangements of space,time, and activity that encourage members of ethnic minority groups to relearn how to experience their own culture” (p. 126).

Finally, Chapter 6 limns the intimate and recursive relationship between the (re)invention, codification and standardization of gudianwu (erstwhile Chinese classical dance) and Chineseness itself in the years following liberation. Of central importance here are recent and historical debates about the status of ballet-informed instruction in a “Chinese” tradition and even more fundamentally, the question of what makes “Chinese dance” “Chinese” in a context where both of these are moving targets. To answer these questions, Wilcox draws from her own embodied fieldwork into gudianwu in which she was repeatedly hailed as an outsider not for any lack of technical skill but because of bodily markers of otherness. Her negotiations of insider and outsider status give her a particularly nuanced view into the yunwei 韵味 (a challenging term that Wilcox renders as the “flavor of Chineseness”) said to be inherent to gudianwu by its practitioners (pp. 180-188).

In this chapter as in the dissertation as a whole, Emily Wilcox effectively and compellingly explores the co-production of Chinese dance and Chinese-ness itself as open-ended and generative versions of reality that have one foot in the past and one in the future. The Dialectics of Virtuosity, is, as even this necessarily cursory review should indicate a rich and rewarding text, one that should find a broad readership amongst scholars interested in issues ranging from dance itself to nationalism, the politics of artistic production, post-socialist transitions, and comparative aesthetics.

Chris Vasantkumar
Anthropology Department
Hamilton College

Primary Sources

Ethnographic Fieldwork and Interviews with several generations of Dance Practitioners in various locations across the PRC.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2011. 223 pp. Primary Advisor: Liu Xin.


Image: 《飞天》 by Xu Heng 许恒, Photograph used with permission of the author.

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