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The 'Ballet of the East':Flower-drum Lantern

http://www.chinese.cn 09:23, October 16, 2009 chinaculture.org

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Flower-drum Lantern
Flower-drum Lantern

Dubbed the "Ballet of the East", the "Flower-drum Lantern" is the most representative folk dance in East China'sAnhui Province. The folk art has a solid foundation among audiences of the famous historical city ofShouxianand is imbued with a rich countryside flavor of theHuaihe RiverValley.Having originated in the Huaihe River Valley and having thrived in more than 20 nearby counties, the "Flower-drum Lantern" is the richest and most complete folk dance, having staged the greatest number of performances in Anhui Province.

The "Flower-drum Lantern," which emerged in theMing Dynasty(1368-1644) and became popular in the lateQing Dynasty(1644-1911) and the early period ofthe Republic of China(1912-1949), is a song-and-dance folk art with very demanding dance skills. In Fengtai and Huaiyuan along the Huaihe River, the "Flower-drum Lantern" has the most distinctive features due to the river's particular geographical situation. Since the Huaihe River is located to the south of theYellow Riverand north of theYangtze River, performances here are tinged with a touch of the boldness of the northern people, as well as the gentleness typical of people in southern China.

The "Flower-drum Lantern" contains wide and profound social implications, and is a rich and varied song and dance art which, with all its armor, boldness, humor and wit, embodies the straightforwardness and optimism of people living along the Huaihe River. The "Flower-drum Lantern" has appeared at many grand domestic celebratory activities and has been granted various honors on several occasions. Late premier Zhou Enlai once praised it as the "Oriental Ballet". Literary and art circles deem the dance as "a national treasure of folk dances", and "a typical representative of Han dances".

Characteristics of the 'Flower-drum Lantern'

As a large-scale song-and-dance performance, the "Flower-drum Lantern" integrates both dance and song, including musical performances by gongs and drums, and a small-scale opera programme. Solo dances, duet dances, trio dances and group dances can all be found in the "Flower-drum Lantern" performances, and its movements are mostly refined from the labor process and daily life. Songs from the "Flower-drum Lantern" are called "Flower-drum Songs" and come from the folk tunes of the banks of the Huaihe River. The tunes are especially capable inexpressing emotions -- either lively and beautiful, or aggrieved and depressed. Accompanyingmusical instrumentsinclude a big gong, cymbals, aflower drumand a small gong; main props for performances include a forkumbrella, folding fan, handkerchief and arm drum.

The "Flower-drum Lantern," also called the "Red Lantern", used to be performed by men disguised as women, with stage names like "Little Bound Feet", and "Little White Shoes", etc. The footwork is based on "soft steps" and "quick short steps". In the course of its development, the laggard elements of the "Flower-drum Lantern" were gradually dropped, and female performers emerged, signaling the "up-mountain big steps". All these transformations, however, have not changed the dance's basic configuration.

The "Flower-drum Lantern" dance features very rich dance movements - to date, more than 500 kinds of steps have been sorted. The dance has a unique style, which is both bold and unrestrained, sincere and exquisite. The dancers' rich postures, unique skills and joyous and thrilling gong and drum accompaniments all express the strong local flavor and fascinating artistic charms.

Development of the 'Flower-drum Lantern'

The "Flower-drum Lantern" was mainly prevalent in more than 20 counties and cities in northern Anhui Province, including Yingshang, Fengtai, Huaiyuan, Huainan and Bengbu. It took shape in the Tongzhi reign of the Qing Dynasty and gradually became popular in the Republic of China.

In the 20th year (1930) of the Republic of China, people along the Huaihe River enjoyed a bumper harvest after suffering a flood and held "Flower-drum Lantern" performances. As aresult, a group of famous dancers emerged, such as Chen Jingzhi, Wu Peixuan, Zheng Jiuru, and so on.

In the autumn of 1952, Feng Guopei, the head of Dongxiang village of Bengbu City, was invited to the Central Academy of Drama to teach the "Flower-drum Lantern" dance. In 1953, the Anhui team of the "Flower-drum Lantern" participated in China's first Music and Dance Joint Performance, causing a big stir across China.

Subsequently, cities such asGuangzhou,Beijing,Xi'an,ShanghaiandNanjingeither invited experts from Anhui Province to foster "Flower-drum Lantern" dancers or sent students to the province to learn it. From then on, the dance became popular across China and later developed into a song and dance drama. The "Flower-drum Lantern" dance became a repertoire for many professional performing groups, and the Anhui Art Academy and Beijing Dance Academy listed the dance as part of their folk dance programme.

At present, the "Flower-drum Lantern" has developed into a stage art suitable for different subjects and able to portray various kinds of human figures. Its music and dance is widely assimilated into dramas and other arts; it has even spread to some Asian and European countries.

Protective efforts

At a national conference on protecting China's traditional culture held in April 2004, the unique "Flower-drum Lantern" dance of Anhui Province, along with 28 other items, was included in the second phase of the National Folk Culture Protection Project.

After the conference, the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Finance in China issued the following notice: "It is an important obligation of governments at different levels to protect the folk cultural heritage," requiring local financial departments to include the clause in their financial budget. The notice also called on local authorities to set up related institutions to take charge of the protective measures.

It is reported that the Ministry of Finance has earmarked a special fund of 6 million yuan (US$723,000) for the preparatory work and research of the National Folk Culture Protection Project.


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