Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Girls standing on boys' shoulders (Photo provided by Jiang Dong)

Huagudeng, the Flower Drum Lantern Folk Art

Nestled in the valley along the Huaihe River in eastern China, a special folk art, centuries old, still captivates people today with its bright colors, diverse forms, fast pace, and cheerful spirit. A folk art of the Han people located in rural Anhui Province, Huagudeng is a Chinese national treasure and is listed in the national inventory of ICH in China.

As a traditional folk artform, Huagudeng has a very long history. It is said to have originated during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), developed through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE), and finally gained wide public appeal during the Ching dynasty (1644-1911 CE). As an artistic form, Huagudeng is a combination of dance, song, drama, percussion, martial arts, and acrobatics. The dance movements are inspired by work and daily life. In the rural areas of Anhui Province, where agriculture is closely related to local life, Huagudeng is a popular folk artform with its popularity extending to the cities and counties of neighboring provinces.

In Chinese, the term Huagudeng refers to three different objects: hua (flower), gu (drum), and deng (lantern), therefore Huagudeng literally means and is referred to in English as “Flower Drum Lantern”. In the dance, the female dancers are called lanhua (orchid), and each wears a red silk flower, called a ball flower, on their heads. In their hands, silk fans and handkerchiefs are used as props. In the past before China’s liberation in 1949, women were discouraged from performing in public so female roles were mostly played by men. That is why all the older, famous artists still alive today are men. Among them, Mr. Feng Guo-pei, a Huagudeng ICH bearer, is the most famous of his generation. In modern times, however, women take part in the performance both on and off stage; as a result, it is hard to find men playing female roles today. Male dancers are called gujiazi (drum stand). The props used by men are mainly umbrellas, short wooden sticks and percussion instruments.

Huagudeng is usually performed in an open space such as the central square of a village, the side of a river, or in the yard of a temple. The audience usually gathers around in a circle. Inside the circle are several long benches with the percussion group on one side. The performers enter the circle with the women standing on the men’s shoulders, and then the men lower the women to the benches and stand beside them. The show formally begins when the men with umbrellas who lead the performance troupe enter the performance space. They bow and lead the performers into the center to dance.

Although the music and percussion are integral to Huagudeng, dancing is the main element of this folk art. The dancing is a combination of duet and group dances, each with its own fixed performance standard. The Flower Drum Lantern dances are quite well-known and require skillful control of the fan. The many difficult movements using the fan give the performance a refined sense and take a long time to master.

During the annual Spring Festival (Lunar New Year) season, even today, village dance teams often compete performing Huagudeng.

There are currently four bearers of Huagudeng that are officially recognized, Feng Guo-pei, Zheng Jiu-ru, Chen Jing-zhi and Wang Chuan-xian.