— by Di Yang, Xu Ziming, Yu Miao, Yu Xinning and Li Yuchen —

Chinese middle-aged women, “Dama” in Chinese, have become a hot topic across China in newspapers and social media lately. This generation of Chinese women have many notable caricatured characteristics: meddlesome, enthusiastic, earthy, stereotyped and hearty. These are the dama who are well-known for their ‘Chinese Plaza Dancing’ (known as guangchangwu).

To be specific, the participants range from the young to the aged. Usually they are around 40-49 or 50-59 because, forty-year-olds are generally in stable state of work and family relations and want an escape; and those in their Fifties have more spare time to take part in activities. Apparently overall, there are one million guangchangwu enthusiasts in China.

New Yangko Dance Campaign, 1959

New Yangko Dance Campaign, 1959

Chinese Plaza Dancing is considered to be a recreational activity derived from a traditional group dancing in the countryside of Shanxi Province, China. It is deemed to be originally linked to the New Yangko Dance Campaign, originating in the Yan’an Literature Forum in 1942. Chairman Mao Zedong’s writings on Literature and Art from this period propagandized the strength of collectivism and it was decreed that art should serve politics, in other words, art, poetry, film, dance, should all serve the advancement of socialism.

This was the People’s Republic’s early attempt at stabilizing political power. Indeed, Yangko Dance had been rooted in the ideas of intellectual youth – the zhiqing – who were the “sent-down” youth from urban areas (coerced or voluntarily) sent to the countryside to establish cultural links with the peasants. To learn from the peasants.

This is a very strange Communist beginning for today’s contemporary plaza dancing in commercial areas of towns and cities. Anyway, after decades of development, Chinese Plaza Dancing has now become a well-organized and ubiquitous series of social groups in most Chinese cities. For example, in Xi’an, people practice both in the morning and evening in their team uniform. Each team consists of residents from the same community. They are similar to a small-scale sports team that has a leader, a teacher and even suppliers.

The basic reason behind this public expression of dancing and exercise combined could be modern urbanization. Since the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, a mass of new factories occupied farmland, causing migration from countryside to the city. Of course, living standard have been massively improved due to urbanization but traditional communities have collapsed as a result. Many people began to feel estranged from one other – people arriving in cities from non-urban areas are necessarily alienated but this was a hundred fold. Therefore, the elderly (those in their 40s and 50s!) are probably trying to meet, connect and adapt to new-formed communities. As such, plaza dancing makes up for their difficulties in adjusting to alien conditions. It is a release of tension.

pair-dancingIn terms of lifestyle, Chinese people have long preconceived the notion of regimen, which derives from traditional Chinese medical science. The advantage of this small community taking exercises together is perceptible: it relieves the social problem of empty nesters and ameliorates the social health condition of the middle-aged and the old.

In addition, filial piety retains a profound significance in traditional Chinese culture. The old are likely to stay at home rather than being sent to a nursing home. Indeed, nursing services not as well-developed as in western countries and so even where elderly are catered for by others, it is plausible to see elders engaged in communal activities as a substitute for their isolation.

It is not surprising that the dancing group has gained popularity over time especially since it has featured on media propaganda channels, primarily CCTV’s presentation of the 2006 Spring Festival Gala performance. A dance called “smart sunset” (Qiao Xi Yang) was highly praised and boosted the confidence of elderly dancers. As a consequence, groups of plaza dancers have sharply increased and their place has shifted from a corner of the community to the central plaza. Nowadays, the rationale is less about concerns for their personal health or for reasons of fitness, but it displays an increasing presentation of their self-esteem. It is an ego-boost. These are not coy old people, these are show-offs. The plaza offers a perfect showcase for them.

All the same, it is worth mentioning that the phenomenon is more intense in second and third -tier cities. Perhaps due to the ancient feudal ethical codes, women were not expected to participate in social activities like this, which reinforced their isolation, further compounding the lack of provision of social resources for these women. Furthermore, today’s middle-aged and elderly are the generations who went through the Cultural Revolution, thus collectivism promoted by Mao is quite embedded in their mindset, according to Caroline Chen, a professor in UC Berkeley. The plaza dancing in this way, bestow sublimation on the conformists. Once in a life time, they managed to attract attention as independent individuals. Claudia Huang from the University of California calls it a “post-socialist collectivity that exists outside of state-approved social structures”.

Foreigners seem always to be delighted – or astonished – to see these dancers for the first time. Apart from the size of the crowd, the setting of a plaza is quite different from its western counterpart. The concept of plaza is taken from ancient Greece of course – normally used as an unofficial gathering place for religious, commercial and political activities – but the modern plaza is a commercial setting. It is still a meeting place but the contemporary religion is usually shopping. In ancient China plazas didn’t take root but in our more modern society, a Chinese plaza is trying to find its meaning. Since outdoor sports culture isn’t pervasive in China compared with western countries, plaza dancing is maybe an acceptable alternative. In this way, Chinese plazas are the equivalent of Western skateboarders.

xian-protestorsChinese Plaza Dancing gains its fame not only for its bustle and liveliness, but also because of its noise disturbance and brashness. In general, residents living near the plaza dance areas don’t have legal protection from the noise, but there are still increasing reports of conflicts between the dancers and the neighbours: some resulting in injury of even death. These conflicts have led to new regulations, defining the time-length, location and organization of guangchangwu. On the whole, plaza dancing is thought to be beneficial by the local authorities and so far, there are no regulations or laws banning the activity.

Chinese Plaza Dancing has already turned into a social phenomenon. It is a curious creation of modern China which reflects the condition and attitude of Chinese citizen towards modern life. It is hard to predict how it will be in the near future, or even in a decade as generations alternate. Whatever happens, it seems as if it will be part of the urban fabric for some time to come.