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The Acme of Perfection

After Chinese dance entered the civilized society from the primitive times, its development accelerated and got matured quickly The "Yayue" (elegant music) system established in the early Western Zhou Dynasty was a milestone marking maturity of the Chinese dance Culture.

Historical records say: Emperor Wu led punitive expeditions to conquer Emperor Zhou and eventually overthrew the Shang Dynasty. Soon after he set up the Zhou Dynasty, he ordered jidan, the Duke of Zhou, to establish rites and music. The rite and music system of the Zhou Dynasty was thus founded on the heritage of the preceding systems of the Xia and Shang dynasties. As a ruling measure -- an instrument of education, the status and function of music and dance art were given unprecedented attention. This part of music and dance is the so-called Yayue (elegant music) or Yawu (elegant dance), which would remain the chief part of Chinese music and dance Culture. Although it experienced ups and downs in the following feudal society spanning thousands of years, it always represented the orthodox trend of music and dance. The chief content of the dance for Yayue was the "Six Major Dances", or the "Six-Dynasty Dances", which represented six dynasties. The first dance was said to be the "Yunmen" (also called "Yunmen Dajuan", "Xianchi" or "Chengyun") and it originated from the legendary ancient Emperor Huangdi. The following parts were the "Dazhang" (or "Daxian") from the Emperor Yao, the "Dashao" (or "Dazhao") from the Emperor Shun, and the "Daxia" (or "Xiayue") from Emperor Yu of the Xia Dynasty, and the "Dahuo" (also called "Sanglin") from Emperor Tang of the Shang Dynasty The last dance was "Dawu" on a realistic Subject, which reflected the achievements of Emperor Wu who overthrew Emperor Zhou of the Shang Dynasty and set up the Zhou Dynasty.

These dances disappeared long ago and it's impossible now to find their details. But still, from various legends about these dances, we can guess some basic elements of them.

Legends say that the subject of "Yunmen" (cloud gate) was to praise Emperor Huangdi who created everything and united everyone, and whose virtues were like auspicious clouds in the sky. Other legends say because the achievements and virtues of Emperor Huangdi benefiting everyone including all those born by Heaven and carried by Earth, thus this dance was also called "Xianchi", which was close to "Xianshi" (Benefiting All). This explanation must have been made by Confucian scholars of later periods. There are also other legends. For instance, Zuozhuan (Commentary on Spring and Autumn Annals by Zuo Qiuming): The 17th Year of Zhao said, "In the past, Emperor Huangdi recorded events with clouds, so he used clouds to designate officials". The legend says that when Emperor Huangdi was entrusted by Heaven to rule the world, auspicious clouds appeared in the sky. Thus he recorded events with clouds, and designated officials with clouds.

There is also an alternative view for the name "Xianchi". Sima Zhen of the Tang Dynasty believed that Xianchi was the name of a constellation in the western part of the sky, which "was in charge of grains, and formed with five stars who had different roles". So the Xianchi constellation was related with the harvest of agriculture. From these legends, one can guess that this dance was originally a totem dance which the clan of Huangdi had employed to pay tribute to their totem of clouds. Later the dance was used to praise the virtues and achievements of Huangdi, and then became a sacrificial dance in ancestral ceremonies asking for ample harvests.

The dance "Dazhang" from the time of Emperor Yao was said to praise the heavenly virtue and godly wisdom of Yao, and the people were drawn to him as like he was the sun or the auspicious clouds. Dazhang means that the virtue of Emperor Yao was great enough to reach the whole world. This dance also seems to have a close relationship with primitive dances of the clans.

The dance "Dashao", called "Shao" for short, is the most famous one among the six dances. Confucius had seen it at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period. The legendary creator of this dance was a strange animal "Kui" who had only one foot. The dance was to praise the achievements of Emperor Shun in carrying on and developing the heritage of Emperor Yao. The form of the dance was to pat stones and strike stones, so that phoenix came and hundreds of animals started to dance together. From this one can tell that the dance also came from a primitive dance of the clan society.

The dance "Dahuo" of Emperor Tang's time is said to be a creation of a court officer Yi Yin at the order of Emperor Tang after he overthrew the Xia Dynasty and set up the Shang Dynasty. This dance was to praise Emperor Tang who saved the nation from the cruel rule of the last Xia emperors, just like a timely rain that fell on the ground suffering from a long-lasting drought. Thus this dance was named "Dahuo". "Huo" is an imitation of the pouring rain. The dance was also called "Dahu", since "Hu" means protection. The music of the dance was temperate and mellow. The word "Huo" also appeared among the prediction scriptures found in the ruins of Yin, the capital of the Shang Dynasty. This word was used to pay sacrifices to past kings and emperors.

The dance "Dawu" was composed by the Duke of Zhou after Emperor Wu Successfully overthrew the Shang Dynasty This dance was to manifest this great victory. As Confucius saw in the Spring and Autumn Period, this dance began with a long run of drums, while the soldier dancers stood up-right holding instruments. They then preceded into a six-part dance. In the first part, the soldiers entered the stage from the north to represent the beginning of the expedition. The second part described how Emperor Zhou was overthrown and the Shang Dynasty came to an end. The soldiers went south to carry on the expedition in the third part, and they Successfully took the southern border regions under control in the next part. In the fifth part, the dancers lined up in different rows to show the separate rule by the Duke of Zhou and the Duke of Zhao. The dancers gathered in one group again in the last part to pay tribute to Emperor Wu. Although the dance employed symbolic measures and did not represent the personalities or conflicts like dance dramas, it was no doubt a narrative dance work on a major event of that time.

The Duke of Zhou gathered the six dances and amended them into a whole set that served as the ritual system of the country and was widely used in sacrificial and festive occasions. He also drew specific rules in their performing scale, subject of the sacrifice, clothes and props, the music and their tones, the status of dancers, and the performing occasions.

The six major dances were also categorized into the "civil" and "martial" types. The first four dances were civil, while "Dahuo" and "Dawu" were martial. The civil dancers held Yue (a flute-like wind instrument) and Di (feather of pheasant), and thus the civil dances were also named the "Yue-Di Dance". The martial dancers held Gan (shield) and Qi (axe), so the two dances were also called the "Gan-Qi Dance". This category method had a certain relationship with the content and form of the dances. But according to later Confucian scholars, this separation was made due to the different means by which the emperor had established their rule. "Rulers who won the country by civil means should compose civil dances, while those who took over the country with force should compose martial dances." This set rule was to be carried on in all following feudal dynasties.

Except for these Six Major Dances, the Elegant Music of the Zhou Dynasty also included "Six Minor Dances", namely, "Fu Dance", "Yu Dance", "Huang Dance", "Mao Dance","Gan Dance", and "Ren Dance". Just as the Six Major Dances, the Six Minor Dances were also composed for educating young nobles and formed an important part of the music education.

Primitive dance in the clan society not only served as an instrument of entertainment, but also for religion, education, and many other functions in the social life. Thus it was strongly utilitarian. As an entertainment instrument, it could entertain the dancers themselves and others; as an education instrument, it contained even more aspects. For example, clan history, labour and production, combat skills, morals and ethic, health and exercises, even knowledge about sex, etc., had been the content of the education via dance.

But fundamentally, it was an act of aesthetics. While carrying out its multiple functions, it must first of all bring aesthetic enjoyment to men (including the dancers themselves). Whereas the dances of the Elegant Music simply stressed on the combination of music and rites, and used the dances to demonstrate the political ideology of social ethics, as well as the rules and systems. Thus the dances became an important ruling instrument which was sacred and inviolable. On the one hand, this showed that the ruling class of the society in that time had realized through long-term practices the great appeal and influence of music and dance on human being's thoughts, feelings, consciousness and actions. On the other hand, this also reflected the one-sidedness of our country's traditional music and dance theory.

The thoughts of using rites and music to educate people received plenty of explanation among works of later Confucian scholars.

The Confucian theories on music and dance stressed that music and rites were indispensable in performing their education role, and that music and dance were vital in purifying people's mind. Rites set down social class differences, while music was a mediator in the society of all classes. This mediation could maintain the social stability and reach the rulers' political goal to well run the world.

The artistic aspiration of the integration between rites and music is the integration of content and form, reason and feelings, moral ethics and aesthetic views. All in all, it is the integration of kindness and beauty. The Analects: Bayi (Eight Teams of Dancers) recorded the comments that Confucius made on the dances "Dashao", representative of civil dances, and "Dawu", representative of martial dances. He said, the dance of "Dashao" was of "perfect beauty and perfect goodness;" while the dance of "Dawu" was of "perfect beauty but not perfect goodness". Confucius thought that the both dances were beautiful, but with regard to the dance of "Dawu", he had reserved views on "goodness" and "perfect goodness". This was because Emperor Wu conquered the terrain of Emperor Zhou with force. Although he was on the side of justice, in the eyes of Confucius who believed in policies of benevolence, he could not fit in perfectly with the political ideal of goodness.

After Confucius, "perfect goodness and perfect beauty" became the top aesthetic ideal of Confucian scholars on music and dance, and all other forms of arts. This eternal aspiration lasted across the history of Confucianism. Confucian scholars of later times expounded extensively on this topic and exerted great influence on the history of the thoughts on music and dance aestheticism.

Such a high aesthetic level was of course beyond the easy reach of most music and dances. It required that music and dances in their natural forms must be controlled, conducted and regulated according to aesthetic standards of being gentle and honest, straight forward and peaceful. In other words, music and dances were managed and limited with political aims and moral ethics. From the one extreme of "indulging in comforts and enjoyments", this had advanced to another extreme of "rites, music, punishments and policy were all in one". After Such a reform and regulation, the music and dance were surely to be far away from real life, from the common people in the earthly world. Hence the music and the dance lost their life and lost their aesthetic character Not long after this set of Elegant Music was composed, it inevitably plunged into a downfall. By the Spring and Autumn Period, the Count Wen of Wei admitted that whenever he had to listen to the Elegant Music, he would fall asleep. Later on, King Xuan of Qi would even turn pale if he heard the word Elegant Music. With the further decline of the Zhou Dynasty's political power, this set of Elegant Music also entered the dead end of "rites collapsed and music disappeared". The rulers of later times tried several times to inject fresh blood into this music by introducing pop music and even the music from the western minority groups, such as the Bayu Dance introduced in the Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty dance of Emperor Qing Conquering the Battle Array. But all these efforts couldn't drag the Elegant Music from its declining cycle.

Even so, due to the political needs of the emperors, the dance of Elegant Music was always on the verge of death throughout the entire ancient society but never left the historical stage. On the contrary, it always retained the "orthodox" position in music and dance. Its role was limited in ancestral temples to mediate the relation between gods and men. The dances to pay tribute to Confucius that may be found today is just the last traces of the Elegant Dance.

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