Chinese dancers portray love, war and resilience on US stage

China 24

Chinese dancers portray love, war and resilience on US stage

It is a story about a love that cannot be, in a time that cannot be forgotten. He Liunian is a traditional Confucian scholar who promised his father – shortly before his father’s death – that he would compose a classical Cantonese masterpiece. The music he eventually composes plays throughout the performance.

He Liunian also promised his father that he would wed Pan Hongying as part of an arranged marriage. But He Liunian is, in fact, in love with another. Xu Chunling is an educator and a modern woman who shares his passion for music.

Dancer Li Xing (He Liunian) reaches for his Gaohu, a traditional Cantonese string instrument. [February 2, 2018]

The story is set in 1930s Japanese-occupied China. It is a period few in the West known much about.

In one of the final acts, one leading Japanese colonel, known for collecting precious musical instruments and his fondness of Cantonese music, demands to hear He Liunian’s composition. Even though He’s wife, Pan, knows she is not his muse – she’s seen his love for Xu – she leaps towards to colonel. She tries to save his life’s work from Japanese hands by giving her own life. Her stage death marks one of the shows several emotional peaks.

“I think human emotions are universal,” says Li Xing, who plays the role of He Liunian. “Everyone, no matter what country you’re from – when you face disaster or happiness – you feel it the same.

Like the other performers on stage, Li Xing does not speak. But he does let out a great big moan when his wife, Pan, is stabbed while trying to protect his work. “As a dancer,” Li Xing says, “it’s easy to just deliver emotions. What’s harder here is that the origin of these emotions – the grief, the sorrow – is based on a true story.”

The real-life Cantonese composition that is said to have “inspired a nation” is called Dragon Boat Racing. So is the performance, with its scenes depicting collective rowing. An ancient Chinese custom, the dragon boats are meant to convey Chinese perseverance during some of the last century’s darkest times.


Choreographer-directors Zhou Liya (left) and Han Zhen speaking to the press at the Kennedy Center before the Washington, DC premiere of Dragon Boat Racing. [February 2, 2018]

“In China, the dragon boat festival is an activity for the people. Families and friends must all work together,” says Han Zhen, Dragon Boat Racing’s co-director. “In doing so, they create a very strong force. In our show, the dragon boat race shows unity and strength between different Chinese groups.”


The show is part of an initiative called “Image China,” which brings Chinese culture and arts to the United States. Dragon Boat Racing premiered in New York two years ago. It opened this year in Washington, DC over the weekend, and will play in Philadelphia later this week.

Laurence Smelser, an American who said his father fought against the Japanese in Java, Indonesia, said it was important to see such productions. “I think it was beautifully done, incredibly well-set, and (there were) good performances,” Smelser said after the show. “I am interested in knowing more about China as a result.”

That is largely intentional. Performances like these are part of China’s efforts to open up to the world. They came at a time when some in the U.S. are growingly suspicious of China’s rise. The artists behind Dragon Boat Racing hope the themes on conveyed on stage – love, war, and resilience – can ultimately transcend borders

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