Dance is an essential part of Chinese culture. To illustrate the importance of the custom, William & Mary’s Program Director of Chinese Studies Emily Wilcox has helped curate a special exhibit at the Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) called “Chinese Dance: National Movements in a Revolutionary Age, 1945-1965.”

Wilcox, a leading scholar of 20th– and 21st-century Chinese dance and performance, joined W&M News to talk about her research on Chinese dance and the WRL exhibit on display through Feb. 17. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Lunar New Year was recently observed Jan. 22. How is dance traditionally incorporated into these celebrations?

A: Dance is a huge part of the celebration for the Lunar New Year. A lot of schools that teach Chinese dance in the United States will perform for Lunar New Year events to create a festive atmosphere. Oftentimes there will be children performing Chinese dance. Also, a lot of Lunar New Year television shows are in the form of gala events that incorporate dance performances, and then people also often do social dancing and ballroom dancing as part of socializing in Chinese American communities.

Emily Wilcox and Liangyu Fu in front of exhibit
William & Mary Program Director of Chinese Studies Emily Wilcox, left, and University of Michigan Chinese Studies Librarian Liangyu Fu worked together to create the library exhibit. (Submitted photo)

Q: Could you explain the Chinese dance style? What differentiates it from other dances?

A: There are a lot of dances that take inspiration from historical poems and stories, and so people often wear costumes that are sort of based on Tang Dynasty costumes or even earlier than that, with long flowing skirts and sometimes elaborate hair pieces with jewels and long flowing sleeves. And there also are a lot of different folk and ethnic minority dance styles that you see performed in Chinese dance. The Han, which is the majority group in China, has a lot of dances that incorporate handkerchiefs that sometimes have gold beads embroidered on them. There are also dances that incorporate different colored fans. Drums are often included. There are some dances where you balance porcelain bowls on your head or clink together porcelain cups in your hands.

Q: Could you elaborate on some of your research findings related to the WRL exhibit?

A: This exhibit focuses on the period from 1945 to 1965, which is when a lot of the Chinese dance forms that we see performed today were really brought to the stage for the first time, so they were transformed from dances that might have been performed in religious or harvest celebrations or different regional contexts, and they were transformed into performance styles for the stage during that period.

This exhibit focuses on the 20-year period when Chinese dance was being created as an artistic practice. Some dances weren’t passed down through history, so choreographers did research on different dance styles and then used that research to sort of re-create the dances during that period. It looks at the origins of a lot of the contemporary dance forms that we see today. But then it also looks at the relationship between the arts and different political issues that were happening at the time. It connects the emergence of Chinese dance as a contemporary artistic practice to things like the Chinese Civil War that was happening in the late 1940s and the founding of the People’s Republic of China as a new government that was based on socialist political ideals. And it looks at how some of those political events were actually expressed through dance, and then also it looks at the biographies of individual artists involved in creating Chinese dance and places them into the history of modern China.

Q: How did the exhibit come to be?

Before I came to William & Mary in 2021, I was previously a faculty member at the University of Michigan, and while I was there, I collaborated with the Asia Library and specifically with the Chinese Studies Librarian Dr. Liangyu Fu to create a library archive that would document Chinese dance history, because this is something that hadn’t really been documented in library archives in North America previously. We created an entire collection, which is now the largest that we know of outside of China, as a resource for scholars who are interested in researching Chinese history. In 2017, we created this exhibit to highlight some of the notable items in the collection and sort of use the collection materials as a way to tell the story of Chinese history in a way that would be visually appealing and accessible to general viewers.

The exhibit incorporates reproduced historical photographs, performance programs and historical publications related to Chinese dance, and then it’s ordered together into a narrative that I wrote based on my research on the subject. Originally, we staged the exhibit at the University of Michigan in 2017, and we received a really great response. We thought it would be great to be able to stage the exhibit again at another location so that it could also reach different audiences. And fortunately, I was able to get some funding from William & Mary Arts & Sciences and then also from the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations as part of their Public Intellectuals Program, and so through the funding from both of those sources, I was able to restage the exhibit and transport all the materials here. And fortunately, the Williamsburg Regional Library was also very supportive of this idea.

Chinese dancer
A special exhibit at the Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) called “Chinese Dance: National Movements in a Revolutionary Age, 1945-1965” features a multitude of images such as this. (Submitted image)

Q: What items in this exhibit interested you the most?  

A: There are some interesting photographs of dance choreographies from the 1950s. There’s one that shows these women dressed in Mongolian costumes, and they’re carrying milk pails, and they’re dancing, and they have this really strong and vibrant presence on stage. To me, that image really encapsulates this idea of women’s empowerment and also the idea of empowering the working classes, which of course was part of the ideology of the time. But it’s really powerful when you see it performed through this really colorful kind of Chinese folk dance.

And there’s some interesting images of choreographies that were staged by Chinese choreographers that are actually representing historical events in other parts of the world. There’s one that’s kind of visually striking where it’s just after the end of World War II. And there’s a choreographer who kind of uses dance to critique Nazism. It’s in the wake of that global spread of Nazism, and so it’s just interesting to see how the dancers were taking up contemporary political events to critique different issues that were happening on the world stage through dance and choreography. 

Q: How do you think the recent shooting at a Chinese dance studio in Monterey Park, California, has affected the Chinese dance community there?

A: It was so devastating. I spent a lot of time in the San Francisco area where there’s also a large social ballroom dance community in which Asian Americans have a really large presence, kind of similar to the community in Monterey Park. I personally practiced ballroom dance for a decade as a competitor and often danced in some of these dance studios in the San Francisco Bay area that have really large Asian American communities.

It was really devastating to hear that news and to see that a space that is meant for celebration and meant for building bonds between people could become a space of such violence, and it’s also a reminder of how Asian American communities in particular have been especially vulnerable throughout history but especially during the pandemic in recent years. 

, Communications Specialist