4 Traditional Chinese Entertainment Options & Their Origins
China, without a shadow of a doubt, has some of the most iconic forms of entertainment in history. Globally recognised for its festivities and New Year celebrations, traditional Chinese entertainment is vibrant, colourful and visually captivating with incredible displays of skill and agility. It is usually accompanied by traditional music as it is an important part of Chinese culture and a fascinating attraction for the rest of the world.
Chinese culture is rich in history and traditions. Spanning back thousands of years it is, in fact, one of the oldest cultures in the World. Unsurprisingly it has spawned countless forms of entertainment, many of which are still very much active and performed exactly as they have done so for generations. Here is a pick of our four favourite traditional Chinese entertainment options and a little insight into their origins.
An icon of Chinese culture and one of the most globally recognised forms of entertainment, The lion dance is quite possibly the oldest form of Chinese entertainment and one that has barely changed in thousands of years. It is typically performed by just two dancers in a brightly coloured lion costume that is, for western culture reference, very similar to a pantomime horse. One person for the rear and one at the front manning the head. It is a playful and colourful dance routine popular with Chinese celebrations all over the world. In Chinese folk culture the Lion dance symbolises power, wisdom and good fortune and is often performed at important occasions such as business opening events, special celebrations or wedding ceremonies. It is also used to honour special guests by Chinese communities, as well as being a standard for New Year celebrations.
The lion dance dates back to approximately 220 - 280 AD when lions were first introduced in China. Prior to this, the lion was an animal that only existed in myth therefore the novelty of the lion quickly grabbed attention and became highly celebrated. After the arrival of this new fantastic beast, people started to mimic the appearance and actions of the lion which eventually developed into the dance that we are now familiar with.
The second most iconic and immediately recognisable form of traditional Chinese entertainment is the dragon dance. A staple favourite at festive oriental and Chinese celebrations all over the world it is a vibrant and engaging performance bursting with colour and energy. Unlike the Lion Dance, it varies dramatically in the number of performers with anything from 2 to 50 dancers parading the dragon. It’s size also varies dramatically sometimes ranging up to around 70 meters long. It is made from a bamboo frame covered in colourful fabric and held up on poles. The dragon dance is accompanied by drums, cymbals and gongs and the performers mimic the actions of the dragon, historically an amphibian creature able to move on land, fly in the sky and swim in the sea.
Chinese dragons are symbolic of being lucky, dignified, powerful, and noble. The Dragon holds particular significance in Chinese culture and is one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that thousands of years ago a legendary tribal leader called Yandi was born by his mother's telepathy with a mighty dragon. It is said that Yandi, the dragon, and Huangdi, another legendary tribal leader, were the prelude to Chinese civilisation and are effectively considered to be ancestors of the Chinese people.
The Dragon Dance itself dates back to 180-230 AD as part of the farming culture where it was performed at times of drought as it was believed dragons were responsible for bringing rain. Over time, different variations of the dragon dance developed across other parts of China and the commonly recognised bamboo frames weren’t developed until the 1200s.
The pounding rhythms of the drum is a much celebrated form of traditional Chinese entertainment immediately recognisable the world over. A one of a kind energetic stage act with big red drums and multiple drummers dressed in colourful costumes that often involves a dance act or choreographed routine. Loud and bold, Chinese drumming is a high impact form of entertainment commonly associated with Chinese celebrations but is a a long-lived tradition recognised all over the world.
The earliest known drums in China date back nearly four thousand years ago and were made of animal shells, skins and clay/wooden composites. Traditionally Chinese drumming has been used in times of celebration and in battle. As a result the drums are often red, a colour associated with power and luck. In combat, troops used Chinese drumming to motivate troops with a marching pace as well as calling out orders or announcements amongst its enormous armies. Chinese drumming has for generations been an integral part of ceremonies at weddings and other festivities. A booming set of drums is often the backdrop to an important celebration and in some cases can be taken to extremes in the form of high energy dance shows.
Bian Lian, translated from Chinese in to face changing, is a dramatic traditional Chinese entertainment and stage art performance that is commonly associated with the Sichuan Opera. This highly entertaining quick fire act involves a brightly coloured illusionist with energetic backing music. With the swipe of a fan or wave of the hand the performer instantaneously changes from one colourful mask to another. During the performance the artists change from three to twenty masks without anyone realising how it is done.
The face changing performance is believed to have begun around 300 years ago, however, Chinese folklore has it that Bian Lian in fact started as a survival technique. People painted colourful designs on their face to frighten wild animals. Another legend claims that a Chinese version of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, would change his appearance when confronted by guards.
The art of Bian Lian is one of Chinese culture’s most guarded secrets. For hundreds of years the skill has been passed down from one generation to the next within families. Traditionally only males were allowed to learn Bian Lian because women do not stay within the family as they marry out, increasing the risk the secret would be passed to another family. Historically, face changing had rarely been seen outside of China because it was a closely kept Chinese art form, however, since the mid-2000s it has been more widely performed around the world.
Just The Tip of The Iceberg
These four options are the tip of the ice berg. There are many other forms of traditional Chinese entertainment and performances common in Chinese culture. Oriental dances, martial arts, Chinese opera and musical performances have also all been performed at Chinese celebrations for generations and are just as exciting, vibrant and culturally relevant as the four we have picked.
Whether you are looking for an act for your Chinese celebrations or after some traditional Chinese entertainment to suit your event, wherever it may in the world, Scarlett Entertainment has everything you could possibly need. Have a browse through our Chinese entertainment acts or get in touch with our entertainment specialists who will be more than happy to help find what you are looking for.