Part 1: Drum music and the various forms of dances
By Bu Aihua and Yang Zhiqing | Center for Hunan Cultural Heritage at Huaihua University | contributors
Xiangxi Miao drum dance is one of the most appealing and distinctive folk arts in Xiangxi Miao regions of western Hunan Province of China with a history of thousands of years. Bred from Miao farming culture, it can be dated back to the Qin and Han dynasties. During wartime and ethnic migrations of generations, Miao people who entered into Xiangxi regions of western Hunan Province brought Miao drum dance to the banks of the Mengdong River in Yuping Mountain. Since then, a unique Xiangxi Miao drum dance emerged.
Xiangxi Miao drum dance is rich and colorful with distinctive regional characteristics that reflect the enjoyment of the rustic life of Xiangxi Miao people, who use drums as props and dance with the rhythms and beats of the drumming. The drum is the symbol of spirit, and the drum dance is the expression of courage, wisdom, strength and the love of life. It is a perfect combination of music, dance, sports, martial arts and other art forms. It can be performed in solo or in groups, which is widely spread in Fenghuang, Huayuan, Baojing counties, Jishou city and other Xiangxi regions of western Hunan Province. In 2006, Xiangxi Miao drum dance was included in the first batch of national intangible cultural heritage protection items in China.
The body of Xiangxi Miao drum is large and round, symbolizing the self-confidence, reunion, unity and enjoyment of Miao people, and the shape of the drum is plump and ruddy, symbolizing the joy, jubilation and auspiciousness of Miao ethnic groups. The sound of the drum is clear, loud and powerful, symbolizing the happy, beautiful and prosperous life of Miao nation. The drum dance replicates the daily and laboring life of Miao people in western Hunan Province through the vivid and narrative performances, which is said to be a historical picture of Xiangxi Miao ethnic groups in western Hunan Province.
The Miao drum dance is performed on different occasions. They are usually performed to celebrate festivals, or worship God or ancestors, or welcome guests, or at weddings and funerals, etc. As to festivals such as New Year, Ganqiu Festival “赶秋节,” Zhuiniu Festival “椎牛节,” Harvest Festival, Xiangxi Miao people traditionally perform drum dance as a special way o express their happiness, unity and satisfaction.
Xiangxi Miao drum dance to celebrate a festival---photo from
Xiangxi Miao drum music
Xiangxi Miao drum music is created through its specific rhythms, speed, strength, beats and the other changes in sound, etc. Different from other Chinese drum music, one of the most prominent ways to play Xiangxi Miao drum is to beat the drum edge (dabian “打边”) and the drum at the same time, which shows two different rhythms and timbres from the same drum. The main rhythm of the drumming is accompanied by the rhythm of beating the edge all the way through.
Beating the drum edge ˗ dabian “打边”is the most important component in Xiangxi Miao drum music. Through beating the wooden drum edge the sound forms a strong contrast with the main drumming sound to render the mood and atmosphere of the whole drum music, which not only achieve the effect of unifying the drum rhythms, but also accompanying the drum music all the way around.
Generally speaking, there are two different ways of dabian by the Xiangxi Miao people, i.e., beating the drum edge with one hand or with both hands. If the player uses one hand, it is called dadanbian “打单边.” The rhythms and beats are strong and fast, or weak and slow. The slow beats are clear between the strong and weak with very strong rhythms, while the fast beats are cheerful and lively. If the player uses both hands, it is called dashuanbian “打双边.” The rhythms and beats are fast or slow to create a warm, enthusiastic and cheerful atmosphere. Usually, before a drum dance, dabian is first employed as a prelude to strike up the performance. Sometimes in order to strengthen the beats to create a stronger, enthusiastic and cheerful atmosphere, some Xiangxi Miao people, such as in Fenghuang County, generally beat the drum edge on the same drum with two players.
Drumming is the main rhythm in Xiangxi Miao drum dance. The beats of the drumming are mostly in odd numbers. The basic rhythms include one-beat drumming “一点鼓,” three-beat drumming “三点鼓,” five-beat drumming “五点鼓,” seven-beat drumming “七点鼓,” nine-beat drumming “九点鼓,” eleven-beat drumming “十一点鼓.” The rhythms of the beats are sometimes strong and intense, fast-paced, just like pearls falling on a jade plate, sometimes soft and soothing, slow-paced, just like spring tinkling, sometimes warm, happy and lively like a cheerful and light-hearted kid, which fully manifests Xiangxi Miao people’s characters of being happy and simple, frank and honest, warm and hospitable, love and hate, brave and positive, etc. The rhythms of the drumming are as follows:
One-beat drumming, often employed as a starting drumming, and the rhythm is:
The forms of Xiangxi Miao drum dance
The most eye-catching part of Xiangxi Miao drum dance is the performers who are dressed in their best drumming outfits, usually dance while playing drum. Though the performance is based on a single drum on most occasions, the number of performers may be different. There are commonly four forms of Xiangxi Miao drum dance according to the number of the performers in Xiangxi Miao regions, such as Solo Drum Dance “单人鼓舞,” Double Drum Dance “双人鼓舞,” Drum Dance for Four “四人鼓舞” Reunion Drum Dance “团圆鼓舞.”
Solo Drum Dance
Solo Drum Dance is the most favorite and popular in Xiangxi Miao regions. The drum head faces forward. There are two forms in Solo Drum Dance. One is that one performer drums while dancing, meanwhile, the other performer only beats the drum edge dabian). The second form is that two performers drum symmetrically while dancing, or one performer drums while dancing, and the other only dance with the drum rhythm as a foil. There also can be a performer doing dabian while the dancers perform.
Women's Solo Drum Dance and Men's Solo Drum Dance are most common in Xiangxi Miao regions, and are usually performed at Spring Festival, or the other festivals and celebrations. Sometimes, gongs and some other musical instruments are played together with the drumming in order to create a warmer and jubilant atmosphere. The women’s performance is more light-footed, lively and cheerful. Whereas, the men's is more vigorous and powerful. Sometimes, in men’s dances, the performer drums only with both hands, even boxing the drum powerfully, which is called bare-handed drum dance. Monkey Drum Dance, in particular, is one of the most striking performances in Men’s Solo Drum Dance. It is the most primitive Xiangxi Miao drum dance, from which some other forms of drum dance were evolved, such as the solo, the double, and the group as well.
In Monkey Drum Dance, the performer is dressed like a monkey and imitates a monkey’s movements. He dances like a monkey while drumming. The most typical imitated movements are like making a stage pose, swing, twisting, whirling, picking peaches, scratching the itches the cheeks, playing a drum, playing on the swings, throwing stones to scare people, and all that, which looks very funny and witty. The performance is very demanding because of the highly challenging movements. The rhythms and beats are light and quick.
Monkey Drum Dance---photo by Huang Qiong
Double Drum Dance
Double Drum Dance is more prevalent in Fenghuang County s. Different from Solo Drum Dance, the drum stands sideways with the performers drumming and dancing on both sides of the drum symmetrically. There are men’s and women’s double drum dances. The men’s are rougher and more powerful, the women’s are lovelier and more cheerful. The performers are well-synchronized and beat on both sides or the same side of the drum at the same time, or one drums and dances while the other only dances along. In Fenghuang County, customarily, during the Spring Festival, the bridegroom needs to take the bride to pay a New Year's visit to his parents-in-law. The bride’s home villagers would set a roadblock with a long red ribbon intentionally at the entrance of the village, namely kaluo (“卡罗”). Before entering the village, besides singing folk songs with each other, the couple needs to perform the kaluo double drum dance together to show their happiness and harmony. This unique drum dance requires both groom and bride be synchronized in rhythms and beats while drumming and dancing.
Drum Dance for Four
Drum Dance for Four is particularly appealing in Jishou City. The drum is specially made with four drum heads. The performers could be four men, or four women, or mixed two men and two women standing staggered. They perform on each side of the drum respectively with symmetrical dance movements and drumming. They need to coordinate well in great harmony with the same drum rhythms and beats. After performing a round, the performers rotate their positions clockwise around the drum.
Drum Dance for four----- photo from
Reunion Drum Dance
Reunion Drum Dance is an ancient group dance that is very popular in Guzhang County, especially during the Spring Festival. Villagers perform Reunion Drum Dance to welcome the new year. The drum is bigger than those in other forms of drum performances and the drum head faces upward. There is only one drummer, and the other performers would dance to the drum rhythms and beats. The drummer is always the most venerable elder of the village. The rhythms and beats are simple, free and joyful, repeated at will, and people dance around the big drum. The more participants, the better. The dance movements are mainly waist swing and hand swing, which can be divided into big swing, small swing and fine swing. Men usually dance in a big swing and around the inner circle if there are more participants, while women usually dance in a small or fine swing around the outer circle. Everyone dances and sings to the drum rhythms and beats, chanting "Ahe! Ahe! Ahe. (啊嗬! 啊嗬! 啊嗬!)” loudly and joyfully. Participants could also go from inner to outer circles or dance in the opposite direction after a round.
Reunion Drum Dance in Guzhang County --- photo from
Young Lillah Vang, Twin Cities, in traditional Hmong attire
The Hmong is one of three distinct groups within the Miao tribe. There are approximately 90,000 Hmong in Minnesota. Most reside within the Twin Cities. Saint Paul has the largest urban Hmong population within the U.S. and they refer to themselves as Hmong, not Miao. They first arrived in Minnesota in the mid-1970s after enduring decades of war trauma, and some have suffered years of confinement in Thai refugee camps.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia site, “Credit for the large Twin Cities Hmong population may be owed to the area’s progressive attitude, as well as its economic and educational opportunities … organizations like the Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Church World Services, and other groups and individuals generously provided the newcomers with basic necessities such as housing, furniture, household utensils, food, and clothing. Others volunteered as English tutors and transporters.”
The China Friendship Garden at Phalen Regional Park in Saint Paul reflects the Hmong connection to China with the beautiful carved pink granite Hmong Heritage Wall, next to the Xiang Jiang Pavilion.