Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Gupiao dance, Wubuzhaihei Miao (Photo by Wu Yunming)

Circle Dances of the Miao Ethnic Group Thriving in China

The Miao people are a linguistically and culturally related ethnic group who settled in the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan, and Guangxi. While the Miao are disbursed over a large area and are subdivided into several different branches, they share a common heritage element called the circle dance. Often accompanied by a lusheng (a bamboo musical instrument), the circle dance is the most important dance and the most popular among all Miao branches. The wood drum dance is popular among the Fanpai Miao in Taijiang County, Guizhou province.

Accompanied by a fast-moving drum beat, young people gather around. It is a cheerful dance for young people to court lovers and for entertainment. Although the participants are generally shy and reserved at the beginning, their passions are gradually heated up by the hypnotic power of the drum, and eventually the dancers raise one leg and begin turning left or right. With the pleated skirts of female dancers rising and falling, a layer of visual excitement is added to the already energized sounds emitted by the drum. The length of wood drum dance is not predetermined; instead, people usually dance on and on until they feel exhausted. This circle dance is enjoyed by not only the young dancers, but also the spectators as it is quite a remarkable sight.

In Sandu County, Guizhou province, married women like to perform bandeng, which literally means “stool dance”. Traditionally, women would work in the fields sitting on little wooden stools. During rest hours, they would gather with their stools in their hands, forming a circle. Eventually, this rest time evolved into bandeng. Today, the dancers either walk along a circle or dance face to face. During the dance, they pat the surface of the stool to create an accompanying rhythm. Or they may use their stools to touch the dancers standing on their left and right. Bandeng is graceful and slow, but also lively and interesting. There are no limits as for time, place and number of people. With its free movements and tempo, bandeng is a versatile form of entertainment most loved by Miao women.

Unmarried youngsters choose their lovers during the lusheng dance at festivals. This dance is so named because during the dance, boys play the lusheng, a kind of bamboo wind pipe that comes in a range of sizes and can produce a rich variety of tones. The boys walk along the circle and play traditional Caitang melodies. Girls in full dress holding colorful handkerchiefs follow the men’s steps in line. Instead of dancing, men only play the lusheng and lead the circle round in different ways. Girls dance and move toward the center of the circle and then go back to boys to dance with them on the orders of the lusheng leader. It is in this process that the boys and girls observe each other and choose their lover.

Miao groups living in Danzhai, Leishan, Sandu and Rongjiang in Guizhou province, enjoy a different, but quite traditional circle dance named gupiao. Like other Miao dances, it is a social event, during which dancers find their lovers. At night, unmarried women meet at the village grounds and wait for the rising of the moon. When the moon comes out, they dance with the young men playing the piaoqin, a wooden string instrument.

The rhythm and speed of gupiao fluctuates according to the melody the men play. The moves and poses of gupiao are simple but graceful. When a man or woman sees someone of interest, he or she will gently step on the other’s foot to show love. The dance may last throughout the night until daybreak.