Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Yangge (or yangger, for you Beijingers) at Deshengmen

I've written about this before, but tonight I passed by Deshengmen on my way to pickup Frisbee and was transfixed all over again by the dancers under the Gate of Virtuous Triumph.

In olden days, Deshengmen -- which now looks like a castle from the original Mario Brothers for NES -- was an entrance point for victorious troops returning from battle. Now it overlooks a small square where elder dancers engage in yannge (秧歌), "rice-sprout songs" accompanied by thunderous drums, gong and horns. These are the songs of pastoral Shaanxi, where yangge originated.

When I arrived, the band was just warming up, with two guys affixing stilts to their feet. One man -- I'd put him at 50 years of age -- was particularly colorful in his movements, flicking his wrists this way and that while jerking his hips and bobbing his head. A young girl of about 5 or 6 rooted her legs to the pavement and shook her upper body in a delightful and cute little sway. I can only guess -- poorly -- what sort of dances will be the craze when she reaches adolescence, but I can say that for our time, what she was doing would qualify in most clubs ("discos," as the locals say) as more than passable.

More than anything, as I stood next to onlookers who bore no expression (weirdly), I wondered why most of the other dancers were so stoic. Their steps around the square -- they moved in a rectangular pattern, snaking back and forth like those aliens in the old Atari game Invaders -- were perfunctory and their countenance inscrutable. Meanwhile, I could hardly suppress my desire to jump into the crowd (something I'd never do in actuality, mind you) and exclaim my joy and gratitude for this scene. The music, which you can hear in the below video, was infused with vim and vigor, rhythm and something very much approximating soul.

Soul of the country. Perhaps that's why the people were so somber. It has been said that my parents' generation is China's Lost Generation, folks who suffered unspeakable injustices during the Cultural Revolution and were told, via state dictum, that their experiences never happened, or that they're moot and irrelevant, subordinate to the aspirations, whims and fancies of China's future generations. The future. What is it, exactly, without a past? On whose shoulders are the people of today -- my generation -- and tomorrow -- that little girl dancing without a care in the world -- supposed to stand on? Whose can they stand on?

There was -- the more I stood there and reflected, the more I understood -- sadness on the dancers' faces, or regret. Was this their catharsis, then? Do they come every Tuesday to this spot to cleanse themselves, in their own private ways amid a collective, of their sins? Can those who suffered and those who inflicted suffering find common ground in dance?

I'm probably taking this conceit too far. For all I know, these were people who needed some exercise and found it sad that summer is giving way to autumn and, eventually, to another cold, bleak winter devoid of music and dance. Or perhaps -- you'll allow me this, I hope -- there is an inner music within all of them, guiding their steps towards a future reunion with their wandering, astray but not lost -- not lost! -- souls.

An earlier YouTube video here.

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