Min Zhu*

Abstract: This paper examines the motivations and characteristics embodied in Chinese contemporary dance in the context of modernization and globalization. The question discussed here is: if the intention of Chinese contemporary dance is to represent the lived experience of people today, why do Chinese dance practitioners argue that there is a difference in core values between Chinese and Western interpretations of contemporary dance? Is there an artificial division between modern and contemporary dance in China to intentionally maintain cultural distinctiveness? Unlike the discarding and overthrowing of the classical tradition that is taken up in Western modern dance, Chinese choreographers do not take up rebellion as the only principle, but they attempt to maintain the connection between tradition and modernity. There is evidence to suggest that hybridity is at play across Chinese classical dance, Chinese modern dance and Chinese contemporary dance.

Keywords: contemporary dance, new dance, inheritance, development, method, hybridity 

The Emergence of Contemporary Dance in China

In December 1978, the Third Plenum of the 11th Chinese Communist Party put forward the “Reform and Opening-up” policy, and the government then instigated a series of important changes in the early 1980s. The “Reform and Opening-up” policy accelerated the social transformation of modern-day China by opening it to the world again. During that period, the reconstruction of national dance became a heated topic of discussion in the Chinese dance community. The import of new ideas and thoughts from the West, including modernism and modern art, promoted the formation of a “modern” consciousness for dance practitioners, along with social modernisation.  The most obvious tendency showed in the discussion about Chinese ethnic and folk dance creation was change; Chinese dance practitioners “longed for breaking through the conventional patterns and methods of choreography. . . . The concept of critical inheritance [of tradition] almost dominated both the theoretical interpretations and creative reflections” (Xu 2006, 47).[1]

In 1987, the American Dance Festival (ADF), in conjunction with the Guangdong Dance School initiated the first modern dance program in China. Dancers from all over China were auditioned and brought to Guangzhou for a three-year course. The ADF sent American choreographers/teachers to help forge a modern dance based on Chinese traditions and culture. Since then, the term “modern dance” entered into Chinese dance practitioners’ visions.

Video 1

Guangdong Modern Dance Company, Trio Trip

The first Chinese modern dance company, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC), was officially established in 1992. Yang Mei-Qi, the founder of GMDC, describes her expectations:

I hope to bring a modernization of perception to our life here. I wanted to open Chinese art beyond the bonds of traditionalism, to allow it to find a place on the international stage. I saw the energy embodied in modern dance swelling out through all aspects of Chinese society, and helping to move it into the modern world. (Solomon and Solomon 1994, 44)

The first generation of dancers in Guangdong Modern Dance Company.

In November 1993, the Third Plenum of the 14th Chinese Communist Party passed a resolution to build a socialist market economy, and the incorporation of the Chinese economy with global markets had made significant impact on Chinese social life.  In the same year, the Beijing Dance Academy established the Modern Dance Laboratory and a modern dance choreography course.

Video 2

Guangdong Modern Dance Company in Amsterdam, 2008

In regard to the emergence of modern dance in China, Chinese dance scholars generally believe that it was the result of a shift in social and political consciousness, a kind of necessity of the time. According to Liu Chun, “modern dance was introduced to China in the 1980s and that was a period of thought liberation. Released imaginations and unconstrained theme selection made dance makers require a new language and they coincidently found suitable means in modern dance” (personal interview, 28 January 2015). Therefore, it can be said that the introduction of Western modern dance met Chinese dance practitioners’ inner demand for the transformation of Chinese dance. The pursuit of creativity and innovative dance forms, displayed in Western modern dance, significantly influenced Chinese dance practice for a long time.

However, the importance of modern dance was largely limited to technique. No systematic introduction of philosophical ideas or choreographic methods took place at its early stage. For example, taking modern dance training at the BDA:

The Graham technique is the basis, followed by the introduction of some modern dance schools from Germany, France, Japan (all in a short-term exchange). Chinese dancers blended these techniques, even fusing them with Chinese dance elements. It seems that very few people say they are the inheritors of a specific school of modern dance. Chinese modern dance teachers also rarely introduce what style or genre they have learned as they are not clear as well. (Liu, personal interview, 28 January 2015)

Throughout the 1990s, as a result of significant variations in dance form, movement and aesthetics, notions of inheritance and development became the major points of discussion in Chinese dance circles. The creation of Chinese ethnic and folk dance at that time tended to break the constraints of traditional cultural connotations and explore the further innovations of dance movement and form, “tradition as an important measure of Chinese ethnic and folk dance creation became less obvious, and perhaps even vague” (Xu 2006, 67). In response, some dance scholars were concerned that the modernization of Chinese traditional dance would lead to a loss of national character, while others believed that Chinese dance practitioners should break the bonds of tradition, explore innovative ways of expression and promote the development of dance in the new period. In fact, the argument appeared to be less about whether modernization was needed, and more about what kind of modernization was needed and how to realize it.

Choreographer Zhao Min

“New dance” first appeared as a category in the First Lotus Award China National Dance Competition in 1998, appearing beside the conventional dance categories of Chinese ethnic and folk dance, Chinese classical dance, ballet and modern dance. The dance work that won the gold award in the “new dance” category that year was called Walk, Run and Jump, and it performed by the Beijing Military Region Art Ensemble. Choreographer Zhao Min integrates the elements of Chinese classical dance, modern dance and ballet in this dance work that reflects the life of contemporary soldiers.

The term “new dance” is derived from the founder of Chinese modern dance: Wu Xiao-Bang (1906–95). Influenced both by the May Fourth New Cultural Movement and European new dance, Wu called his dance practice “new dance” to distinguish it from the feudalistic dances of old China. Reflecting social realities and maintaining reformatory spirit are considered core values of the “new dance.”

New dance work: Starving (饥火), choreographed and performed by Wu Xiao-Bang, in 1942
Dance work: Walk, Run, Jump, performed by the Beijing Military Region Art Ensemble, in 1998

In 2002, the “new dance” category was replaced by “contemporary dance” in the Third Lotus Award China National Dance Competition. Yu Ping defines contemporary dance “as a category that means that the movement or at least the subject of dance creation does not come from a specific dance tradition, but is derived from contemporary peoples’ lives” (2002, 3). It implies that contemporary dance is considered a new dance form in the present. Although it resembles the emergence of “new dance” in the 1930s, when it was motivated by the specific socio-political and cultural intentions of that time, it contained fewer revolutionary (or military) implications but more contemporary dance expression.

While the emergence of these new categories signified that innovation was occurring in body movement, form and aesthetics in Chinese dance, definitions for each dance category were vague. The movement language of contemporary Chinese dance creation tended to break with traditional dance patterns to integrate elements of modern dance, while the emotions and story more closely represented the lives of contemporary people rather than merely presenting a traditional dance scene. As a result, conventional dance categories faced unprecedented challenges and, ironically, contemporary dance became a mixed bag or “big basket” (Tao, 2010, 2). This basket gathered new dance works that could not be easily categorized into conventional dance forms. This ambiguity directly affects not only the practice of dance, but also how we understand it. Therefore, along with the emergence of new dance forms, there arises discussion and new discourses around exactly what constitutes Chinese classical dance, what Chinese contemporary dance is, and how the difference between modern and contemporary dance in China might be understood.

Dance work: Small Rain Lane/小城雨巷 performed by Nanjing Military Region Song and Dance Ensemble. The dance work that won the silver award in the “contemporary dance” category in the Fifth Lotus Award China National Dance Competition, in 2005
The Understanding of Modern Dance in China

“Modern dance” (in the Western context) is widely believed to have developed in the early twentieth century and positions itself in opposition to the universal ballet aesthetic and technical principles. Consistent self-reflection or renewal is considered the driving force of the development of Western modern dance, which is also maintained in postmodern dance and contemporary dance. Modern dancers boldly seek ways to create individual movement language and models rather than following, unquestioningly, the established approach in technique, form or content.

However, due to complex historical, cultural and ideological reasons, China did not experience the process of “modern dance” in the same way that modern dance has been encountered in the West; the understanding of “modern dance” for Chinese dance practitioners was not without confusion or complexity. The lack of understanding of the Western social and cultural origins, and, particularly, without real experience of the crisis of religion and reason brought by industrialization, Chinese dancers’ understanding of the development of Western modern dance is general and one-sided. Many people do not fully know the profound social background and specific historical conditions of the emergence of modern dance, and simply become lost in the fresh and innovative artistic forms. Therefore, the term modern dance is used to “describe almost all new dances which differ from traditional dances” (Xu 2006, 114).

Ironically, Chinese people have, for some time, been acutely aware of, or familiar with, the term “modern” by experiencing the rapid social, political and economic transformation to modernity. The new value system of embracing modernization also involved the humanistic idea that places the individual (as opposed to the community) as the core subject, thereby instigating a shift towards individualism. Thus, the emergence of Western modern dance in China coincidentally corresponded to a domestic desire for innovation of traditional dance for Chinese dance practitioners.

The unprecedented level of novel dance movements and images significantly stimulated Chinese choreographers to rethink and recreate Chinese dance. Therefore, “modern” implies the innovation of Chinese traditional dance with a modern aesthetic appeal. According to Zhang Shou-He, one of the founders of the modern dance program at the BDA, the dance culture in China is capable of absorbing external “foreign” influences and transforming these influences into a new catalyst to promote local cultural development (1995, 25). Therefore, rather than solely imitating Western modern dance, the development of “Chinese modern dance” was quite influential in staking a claim for the localization of Chinese dance, and this idea helped to legitimize modern dance in China. Zhang suggests that:

We must constantly develop modern dance with Chinese characteristics based on full absorption and inheritance. . . . Our pursuits are how to promote the advanced modern dance techniques and ideas in a specific Chinese cultural context; that is how to reasonably merge unique Chinese cultural psychology and emotional modes with the way of expressing modern dance. . . . “Chinese modern dance,” I propose, . . . refers to being able to adapt to the Chinese people’s aesthetic tastes and cultural preferences; it possesses both Chinese and cosmopolitan characteristics. (1995, 25)

In actuality, along with the process of Chinese modernization, “modern” is regarded as a value system or particular aesthetic standards that has become visibly or invisibly embodied in the ways Chinese dance is understood, practiced and criticized.

During the process of Chinese dance development, people pursued and resisted the “modern.” Compared to the pursuit of aesthetic autonomy and the achievement of individualistic values in the West, the complexity of modernity embodied in Chinese dance creation can be summarized in two points. First, it highlights the expression of individuality, the courage to innovate and appropriate Western advanced experience and ideas positively, and the ability to have a dialogue with Western arts. Second, it reflects the transformation of traditional culture under the influence of social modernity and the changes of aesthetic morphology.

Further, there is no sharp opposition between aesthetic modernity and socio-political modernization in China. According to Bauman, the history of modernity in the West has represented an ongoing tension, which is a “history of tension between social existence and its culture” (1991, 10). Under the instruction of “inheritance and development,” Chinese choreographers have combined modern dance vocabularies and techniques with the so-called essential elements of traditional dance to create contemporary Chinese dance, by building connections between recent “reality” and tradition.

Video 3

Scene from Zhu Huan or Crested Ibises. Performed by Zhu Jiejing, Wang Jiajun and the Shanghai Song and Dance Theater Company
The Hybridity of Chinese Contemporary Dance

In December 2001, China officially joined the World Trade Organization, thus bringing globalization to China. However, globalization also resulted in a need to confront the balance between the global and the local. Therefore, during this time, China was faced with several binary choices: traditional versus modern, elite culture versus commodity economy and globalization versus localization.

Appearing at the turn of the century, contemporary dance in China undoubtedly reflected Chinese dance practitioners’ desire to create new imagery and make new statements. The concept of hybridization was useful in examining the fusion found in Chinese contemporary dance forms. Facing the new dance category and its featured hybridity, the inevitable question was whether this form could be identified with particular aesthetic characteristics.

Ye Jin argues that “the division of the two dance forms for Chinese dance academics is still controversial and has no consensus” (as cited in Tao 2010, 1). When classical dance and modern-style dance are interwoven, the shared themes and emotions have led to a definitional blurring and different forms of dance.

In Yu Ping’s (2002) opinion, the modern dance training system emphasizes the exploration of a dancer’s ability, which includes body movement and awareness, while contemporary dance refers more to the subject of the dance and does not have a corresponding training system. Modern dance stems from modernism, while contemporary dance is underpinned by the internal concerns of social realism.

However, I question that if the intention of Chinese contemporary dance is to represent the lived experience of people today, why do Chinese dance practitioners argue that there is a difference in core values between Chinese and Western interpretations of contemporary dance? Is there an artificial division between modern and contemporary dance in China to intentionally maintain cultural distinctiveness?

Apparently, the development trajectory and internal logic of contemporary dance in China is different from those of their Western counterparts, who define contemporary dance in more explicit ways, and yet I find that there are many similarities in our approach, particularly in the use of body movement to attempt to capture life as understood today.

No matter the term, the intention is to give a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon of hybrid dance styles in contemporary dance creation, as seen in Xu Rui’s argument:

China and the West, tradition and modernity, all dislocated in the contemporary space and time . . . “modern” or “contemporary,” both contain Chinese and Western cultural elements . . . both are a cultural mixture of Chinese dance in the contemporary period. (2013, 10).

The inner contradiction between rationality and cultural spirituality that emerged in Western society turned into a series of issues in China, such as the tension between experiences of the outside world and the local experience, and between traditional culture and modernity. Chen Ya-Ping’s description of an “Asian” modernity is defined by the “dynamics of dialectic dualism—national/individual identity quest, colonial/post-colonial power structure, modern/traditional polemics, globalization/indigenization impetus . . . the tension and negotiation within and between these dual structures that distinguish Asian modernity” (2012, 316).

The anxiety to maintain the uniqueness of a national culture within the wider context of globalization remains. For artists originating from and practicing in the “Asian” context, it is crucial to explore the relationship between the West, Asian tradition and modernization. For instance, Joelle Jacinto investigates contemporary dance in Southeast Asia and finds that “to many current choreographers, contemporary dance is less a form of dance and more a process, a mode of production, a new way of working, of exploring concepts. It is a constant questioning of practice” (2015, 6).

Similarly, I argue that during the modernization of China in regard to social, economic and political development, Chinese traditional dance has also experienced a process of reinvention and transformation, as well as the melding of the traditional and the modern in choreography. Although Chinese dance practitioners may have once questioned the place of tradition and eagerly innovated the traditional expression and form, they are still interested in honoring tradition, and Chinese dance scholars have often turned their attention to the role of the inheritance and development of tradition in the new century.

Unlike the discarding and overthrowing of the classical tradition that is taken up in modern dance by the likes of Graham and Cunningham—a principle that stems from the derision of tradition as a guiding principle of modernity— Chinese choreographers do not take up rebellion as the only principle, but they attempt to maintain the connection between tradition and modernity. While Chinese modern dance has intentionally drawn elements from traditional Chinese culture, some instances of Chinese classical dance have extended (beyond) “traditional’ boundaries,” leading to a type of categorical uncertainty and the invention of the term “Chinese contemporary dance.”

There are some intersections between Chinese modern and contemporary dance forms in terms of body movements and the intention to liberate and radicalize form, including one example from Xu, who recalled that “after watching a contemporary dance work in the dance competition in China, a Chinese-American choreographer surprisingly said that this is a modern dance with unique Chinese characteristics on the international stage” (2014, 5). There is evidence to suggest that hybridity is at play across Chinese classical dance, Chinese modern dance and Chinese contemporary dance.


The dialectic relationship between tradition and modernity has broadly influenced numerous aspects of Chinese society. The consideration of tradition and modernity for the Chinese dance community has manifested through the selective inheritance of tradition and creative transformation in dance forms through external influences, during the opening up stages, and, continually, throughout history, as a result of domestic campaigns of what Chinese dance may do, what it might look like and what it can offer.

A cultural mixture of tradition and modernity, Chinese and Western, is embodied in the Chinese contemporary dance, which represents the push and pull of tradition and modernity—a celebration of the inheritance of tradition while embracing variation and transformation for a community of dance forms that embody a particular type of Chineseness.

Dance work: Beyond Calligraphy (临池舞墨) performed by Guangdong Modern Dance Company, in 2005. Choreographer: Liu Qi

[1] All Chinese quotations in this article are translated by the author.

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Chen, Ya Ping. “In Search of Asian Modernity: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Body Aesthetics in the Era of Globalisation.” Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader. Ed.  Jo Butterworth and Liesbeth Wildschut. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. 2012. 316–29.

Jacinto, Joelle. “Contemporary Dance in Southeast Asia, Asia Pacific.” Paper    presented at the 2015 Annual General Meeting of World Dance Alliance Asia-Pacific, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), Singapore. 2015.

Solomon, Ruth, and Solomon, John. East Meets West in Dance: Voices in a Cross Cultural Dialogue. Vol. 9. New York: Harwood Academic. 1994.

Tao, Jing She. “议中国当代舞现代舞概念与内涵. [“Discussing Concept and Connotation of Contemporary Chinese Dance and Modern Dance.]中国艺术报 [China Art]. December 24, 2010.

Xu, Rui. 2006. “Inheritance and Variation Interaction and Innovation: The Aesthetic Evolution and Contemporary Development of Choreographed Chinese Ethnic And Folk Dance.” Dissertation. China Academy of Art.

Xu, Rui. 2014. “关于现代艺术的思考 | 中国的现代舞还是现代的中国舞 [“Thinking about Modern Art: China’s Modern Dance or Modern Chinese Dance.”] .

Yu, Ping. 2002. “现代舞,当代舞及其他 [“Modern Dance, Contemporary Dance and the Others.”] China Cultural Daily, November 12, 2002.

Zhang, Shou He. 关于现代舞在当代中国发展及其走向的几点认识 [“Some Understandings about the Development of Modern Dance in Contemporary China.”] 舞蹈 [Dance]. 24–25.

*Min Zhu holds a PhD from Edith Cowan University, Australia, and is currently employed as a lecturer and adjunct researcher at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), ECU. Her research areas include the comparison between Chinese and Western contemporary dance, physical theater practice, theater performer training. Her latest research is the application of Tai Ji in contemporary performer training and performance making.

Copyright © 2018 Min Zhu
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Contemporary Chinese Dance: The Interweaving of Tradition and Modernity
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