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The Beginning of Time -- Ancestor of All Dances: Primitive Dance

The embryo and childhood of dance can be traced back to the first days of human beings, far exceeding human memory. In the Warring States Period, the great poet Qu Yuan raised over 100 questions about Heaven, Earth and Man in his famous Tianwen (Question the Heaven). The first question he asked was:

At the beginning of the world, everything was in chaos and out of position, and who recorded and passed down the scenes of those days? Neither Heaven nor the Earth had come into being, and on what basis could the studies proceed on those days?

Since dance originated before human beings had conscious memory, who can make exact studies?

Legends on the origin of dance are abundant in ancient literature. There are several stories in Lushi-Chunqiu (Annals of Lu Buwei): Zhongxiaji (Mid-Summer Records): Guyue (Ancient Music).

A. When the ancient Emperor Zhuanxu was enthroned, he heard the winds howling from all directions and was pleased. So he ordered his official "Feilong" (flying dragon) to imitate the sound of the winds and compose "Yue" (music); and then he ordered "Dan" (or "Tuo") to be the first musician, lying on the ground and flapping its tail on its stomach to make sound. Zhuanxu named this music and dance "Chengyun" and offered it to the God in Heaven.

B. The ancient Emperor Ku ordered an official "Xianhei" to compose the songs called "jiuzhao", "Liulie" and "Liuying". He then ordered "Chui" to invent instruments: pi (a small drum), drum, bell, qing (chime stone), sheng(reed-pipe wind instrument), guan (Wind instrument), and chi(flute-like instrument). The pleasant music made from the instruments enticed the phoenix and pheasants to dance. Pleased, Emperor Ku used this music and dance to praise the God.

C. When Yao became the emperor, he ordered Zhi to compose music and dance. Zhi imitated the natural sounds of wood and streams to make music. He put deer skin on the fou (an earthen pot with a big body and a small mouth) to make a drum, and imitated the God's jade qing by beating stone knives and axes heavily or lightly. At this music, all the animals started to dance.

All these myths were recorded by ancient people. Although they may not be historical facts, they might contain hints of reality. There are something worthy of our attention. For instance, primitive music and dance were created through imitating nature; "imitate the wind of all directions", "imitate the natural sounds of wood and streams to make music". Most of the musicians and dancers were always birds and beasts. "It (the pleasant music) enticed the phoenix and pheasants to dance", "All the animals started to dance after hearing it". Composing music and dance was always related to offering sacrifices to Heaven, like "offered it to the God in Heaven", and "to praise the God".

These myths reflect the understanding of ancient people in primitive dances. Legends about the origin of dance as related to nature, animals, birds, and sacrifices are still popular.

"Munao Carnival" of the Jingpo ethnic group is a famous sacrificing ceremony A legend passed down by generations says that there was no music or dance on Earth, and only Heaven had them. Once the Sun invited all birds from the Earth to visit the Heaven and join the "Munao Carnival". The birds learned singing and dancing; they were very happy After coming down to Earth, they asked the peacock, who had learned the best, to be the "Naoshuang "(leader of dancing) and danced together. The Lagongzha couple, ancestors of the jingpo ethnic group, happened to see the birds singing and dancing. They learned the music and dance secretly and passed them down. From then on, "Munao Carnival" came to the Earth. EVen today, the "Naoshuang" must wear feathers of a peacock to memorize the effort of the peacock. "Munao Carnival" has been passed down as both a festival of music and dance, and a special day to make sacrifices to the ancestors.

The bronze drum of the Zhuang ethnic group is said to have been invented by this group's ancestor Buluotuo, who made the drum according to the stars in Heaven. A legend says that the lusheng(a reed-pipe wind instrument) of the Miao ethnic group was made from the shape of a duck. The Dong ethnic group also has a legend that says the Dong people didn't know music or dance until their ancestors got them as a grant from the Heaven. But on their way back, the ancestors dropped the grant into an abyss where a dragon lived. Thanks to the help of an otter who dived into the depth of the water to fetch the grant, the Dong people were able to have their own music and dance, and the festival of "Caitangge".

In the Dance Rules in offering Sacrifice to Shiluo, the ancient dance book of the Dongba religion among the Naxi ethnic people, the first chapter is "The Origin of Dance". The scripture says, "In the olden days, on the fertile and vast land where mankind grew, 360 Dongba had not learned to dance. Upon this time, at the Milidaji Sea (the first sea mankind saw according to legends), a tree seedling appeared with leaves thin as hair. This was the Heyibada Tree. On the tree rested the three Victory Gods -- the Giant Roc, the Lion, and the Flying Dragon. The method of dance was learned by the three gods from the Golden Frog who lived at the Milidaji Sea. As for the Golden Frog, he had learned dancing from the Goddess of Panzhusamei (the wise and beautiful goddess of music and dance in Naxi legends), who lived above 18 levels of the sky. From her came the dance of the 360 Dongba." Today there are still many similar legends.

All these myths were passed down through the centuries, and it is impossible to keep them unaltered. They reflected the close relation between primitive dance and nature, animals and birds, clan ancestors and sacrificial ceremonies. Some ancient scholars said, "The grand Yue is in harmony with Heaven and Earth." This is an aesthetic distillation of the innermost meaning embedded in these myths, and reflected the primitive people's wish to be in harmony with the nature world.

The ancient dance passed its embryo and childhood stages in the primitive society, which was a long period featuring dramatic changes in both dance and its Surrounding natural and cultural environment. With the appearance of primitive belief came the dances of totem, sorcery, and sacrificial ceremony. These dances had ripen by the end of the primitive society. In the Chinese ruins of the Neolithic Age over 6,000 years ago, musical instruments like pottery xun, pottery whistle, bone flute, stone qing and tuo drum were excavated. The most noteworthy discovery was made in the autumn of 1973, when a pottery basin with dancers pattern on it was excavated at the Shangsunjiazhai Village of the Datong County in Qinghai Province. This basin shows us directly the dance art about 5,000 years ago.

Excavated in a tomb of the Majiayao-relic type, this colored pottery basin made a stir in the archaeology circle. Pottery basins with colorful Fig.s were typical wares in the Majiayao Culture. The Fig. of the dancers was painted on the upper rim of the basin's inside. The 15 dancers are put in three groups separated with arc lines. The figures in each group dance hand-in-hand. They are wearing the same costumes and in the same posture. Their head decorations (or plaits) are thrown in the same direction, and the tail decorations (pointed objects at the bottom) are also in the same direction. This shows that the movement, rhythm and meter of the dancers were in harmony. There is no musician in the Fig. and, of course, the music can't be heard. However, in group dance, the changes in movements, formation, position, rhythm and speed must rely on the cue of music. In addition, from the dance scene of this pottery basin, the harmonious movement, formation and clothing indicate that this dance might have been a traditional show for some special occasion. To preserve and pass on this dance, the clan must have someone to master, rehearse, and organize the dance. In the primitive society, the "Wu" (sorcerer) was in charge of all these duties. This was a crucial step in the development of primitive dance.

After this colored pottery basin was found, several other colored pottery works with dancing Fig.s have been excavated in China. In 1995, another tomb in Qinghai Province produced another colorful pottery basin. The shape and structure of its dancers are similar to the former one, but there are more dancers and the scene is more magnificent. In 1991, a tomb of the Neolithic Age at Wuwei, Gansu Province also produced a colorful pottery basin, whose upper inside is painted with two groups of dancers. With nine in each group, the dancers are also hand-in-hand. Their lower bodies are presented in three thin lines, which might have been tail decorations or indications of the feet movement.

It is not accidental to discover the series of colorful pottery basins with dancing scenes in the tombs of the Majiayao Culture found in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. This shows that the colorful pottery basin excavated at Datong was not a sole evidence, and that ancient residents in these areas loved the arts. They could not only sing and dance, but also had rather advanced Cultural activities involving music and dance. This form of dance with hands joined might have been the origin of the later dance form "Tage" (beating time to a song with the feet), which is still popular today In October 1982, a ground painting with human figures was discovered in the house ruins of the late Yangshao Culture, which existed a little earlier than the Majiayao Culture at Dadiwan of Qin'an, Gansu Province. There were originally three figures, but one is beyond recognition and seems to be a child. The other two on the left appear to be a man and a woman. Both of them have their left arms raised. Their right arms hang down and are bent at the elbow, with the right hand gripping a stick-like object. Their legs are crossed. Archaeologists believe this scene of a man and a woman dancing together depicts a dance to commemorate ancestors or their dead.

Dancing scenes later than those found on colorful pottery basins have also been found. For instance, on a broken piece of a pottery jar excavated in the ruins of Shixia in Qujiang, Guangdong Province, a ring of dancers were printed clearly showing men and women dancing with joined hands. In addition, Chinese archaeologists have found a large number of cliff paintings or frescoes in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the lnner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Tibet Autonomous Region, Heilongjiang Province, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Guangdong Province, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Yunnan Province, Fujian Province and jiangsu Province. These creations cover an extensive region from east to west, from north to south in the nation. Most of them depict the labour, life and religious activities of people in primitive society Almost all of them have vivid dance scenes.

The forefathers of various nationalities painted or carved one after another exquisite dance scenes. It seems that they invite us to join the clan dance parties of various primitive tribes, to hear the deafening drums and shouts, to see their wild and free movements, and to feel their passionate feelings, and their deep faith and belief in Heaven and Earth, Nature, and ancestors.

The large amount of dance figures found in cultural relics above or under-ground provide us with ample information on primitive dances. They are no longer myths, but real history. They truthfully reflect the dance culture of different regions and tribes, and indicate the position and function of dance in society at that time.

Dance walked a long road in primitive society, but by the Neolithic Age, especially in the paternal society, Chinese dance art had formed its basic structure. Therefore, the elements of later dances were ready in the system of primitive dance.

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