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Chinese Dance in Ancient History
Perfectly Compassionate and Perfectly Beautiful
Gu Dao, The Epoch Times

While Confucius was in the ancient nation of Qi, he listened to the grand dance "Shao," which was created during the reign of Emperor Shun. Afterwards, he "was unable to eat meat for three months." He sighed, "I did not expect that music could reach such a state." Confucius also said "Shao" was "both perfectly beautiful and perfectly compassionate."

But when he commended the musical dance "Wu," which had been created to extol King Wu's achievement of defeating Emperor Zhou [a ruthless king of the Shan Dynasty], Confucius praised the music as being "perfectly beautiful, but not perfectly compassionate." Thus through these stories, Confucius left the criteria in Chinese history for judging dances: that is, dance should be both perfectly compassionate and perfectly beautiful.

Dance began as a way to honor and show respect toward gods. The ancient writer Lu Buwei wrote "Ancient Music," from his book of Chinese history "Lushi Chunqiu” (“Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals”) There were three such stories on dance in the section, “Notes of Summer."

After Emperor Zhuanxu came to power, he noticed how the wind had a splendid tinkling sound that came from all directions. He ordered his court musician Fei Long to create a musical composition that imitated the sound of wind. The emperor also ordered another musician to lay on the ground and tap on his own belly, which resembled the chirping of birds. The emperor named this musical dance "Cheng Yun" and used it during a ceremony to worship the Emperor of Heaven.

During his reign, Emperor Ku ordered the official Xian Hei to compose the songs "Jiu Zhao," "Liu Lie," and "Liu Ying." He also ordered a subject named Chui to create musical instruments. Chui created a battle drum called “Pi”, a drum called “Gu,” a bell called “Zhong,” a musical stone called “Qing”, a reed wind instrument called “Sheng”, another wind instrument called “Guan” and “Chi”, a bamboo flute with eight holes. When these instruments were played, they gave out such appealing sounds that it is said phoenixes and pheasants started to dance to the music. Emperor Ku was very happy, and he used this musical dance to praise the virtues of Heaven.

Emperor Shun ordered his subject Zhi to create a musical dance. Zhi composed music that imitated the sounds from mountains, forests, rivers and valleys. He made a drum by covering a piece of pottery with elk skin and played it by tapping it. To imitate the sound of the Emperor of Heaven's jade Qing, he would strike stone knives and axes. It is said the animals in the forest started to dance to the music.

A book of 305 poems called “Shi Jing” from the Han Dynasty wrote about the origin of musical dance. The preface to the Mao's Edition stated, "A poem describes one's aspirations. Being in the heart, it is an aspiration; when spoken, it is a poem. One's sentiment originates from one's heart and is expressed by speaking. When words cannot describe the feeling, one sighs. When sighing is not enough, one sings. When singing is not enough to express the sentiment, one dances with joy by moving one's hands and feet and body."

These words mean that dancing—unconsciously using movements of one's hands, feet and body—is used to express oneself when one cannot sufficiently express one's feeling with words, sighing or even singing. When we read these poems, are there any whose meaning cannot be expressed in the form of dance accompanied by music?

Zuo Qiumin, author of “Zuo's Spring and Autumn Annals,” a chronological history of China, said that spiritual worship and military affairs are of greatest importance to a nation. Worship refers to honoring Heaven and one's ancestors. An important part of ancient worship ceremonies was large-scale, musical dances. While modern people can appreciate the poems of “Shi Jing”, we can also imagine the ancient, simple but solemn, large-scale musical dance performances they describe.

The highest praise of music in ancient times was "This piece of music should only come from the heavens, and how few times could one be able to listen to it in the human world." Music can be played alone, while a dance needs a music accompaniment. Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong composed the widely-known "Dancing in Rainbow and Feathered Clothes." The emperor was said to have seen in a dream the graceful movements of heavenly maidens and heard the divine music and then wrote about the experience. The composition has been passed down through the ages.

After Buddhism was introduced into China, the Buddhist Dharma spread throughout China. Its lasting influence can be seen in the amazing paintings, frescoes and sculptures in the Dunghuang Grottoes. The frescoes in the Dunghuang Grottoes vividly depicted scenes such as heavenly maidens scattering flowers and flying. The subject of Wu Daozi's painting "Heavenly Beings' Clothes Flying" appeared as if he had received help from the deities. The heavenly beings' postures and dances have become the ultimate realm of Chinese dance.

For a dance to be divinely charming depends not only on the dancers having reached the realm of divinity in their cultivation and skills, but also because the dance is a direct presentation of divine will. In the performances of the New Tang Dynasty Television's Divine Performing Art Troupe, the musical dance "Creation" displays the tremendous cosmic changes in the universe. Because it directly reflects divine will through the perfect dancing and musical performance, the greatness and compassion of the enlightened beings have strongly moved the viewers. Many of them had tears in their eyes while watching the performance; they even exclaimed that the dance seemed to be performed by deities.

In the dance "A Dunhuang Dream," the sculptor's pure compassion, unselfishness, and pious faith in gods and Buddhas enabled him to see in his dream the magnificence and extraordinariness of gods and Buddhas. This story further let people know how the many and well-known statues in the grottoes were created.

Perfectly compassionate and perfectly beautiful dance presentations play roles of cleansing the soul and bringing out wisdom. What a wonderful mission for the art of dance!

Visit for information on upcoming performances of pure and compassionate Chinese classical dance.

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