Dachuankeng Village Kylin Dance
Dancing beasts of Bao’an
Hoofed, antlered and commonly depicted ablaze amid roaring flames, the Kylin is a mythical chimerical creature in Chinese mythology. Traditionally associated with wisemen and rulers, it is widely believe that the Kylin brings good fortune. Such was the Chinese people’s fondness for this beast that, in addition to the legend, they have created bountiful art, literature and dances about the monster.
A prominent example is the Kylin Dance of the Dachuankeng — or ship-pit — Village, situated on Dalang Street in Bao’an District, Shenzhen. Originating from the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty, this dance has persisted for 400 years and counting.
The key component of the dance is a fake Kylin, which varies between three to four, and sometimes up to six meters in length. Branches and bamboo planks are fastened into a basic frame for its head, later to be adorned with lifelike eyes and a mouth. Then, the Kylin’s body is bound in silk sashes inlaid with an array of gleaming scales.
By tradition, a newly made Kylin prop must be initiated in a consecration ceremony before its first performance. One that day, at the break of dawn, incense is burned at the stump of a preselected ancient tree, while, simultaneously, prayers are offered to spirit tablets nearby. The eldest member of the Kylin dance troupe then ceremoniously frees the Kylin of its red blindfold, the action marked by the beating of drums and the crackling of firecrackers. In such initiation ceremonies, it is imperative that the Kylin is unmasked outdoors, as it is believed that it brings luck when a ‘newborn’ Kylin’s first sight is green.
Comprising eight parts, the dance is symbolic for the stages of a Kylin’s life and its actions. Said stages are as follows: worship and prayer, walking in a circle, encounter of two Kylins, foliage harvest, garden promenade, drunken fatigue, and walking in a large circle, concluded by three prayers. During the dance, the eclectic emotions of the Kylin are reflected in the choreography, through the dancers’ vivid representations of joy, anger, sadness and joy, surprise, doubt, drunkenness and sleep.
The entirety of the dance lasts 25 minutes, during which one performer is responsible for the head and one for the tail. With precise coordination and technique, they capture the spirit of the creature to present to the audience.
Afterwards, spectators are treated to a series of martial arts performances, a form of storytelling which relies on a combination of traditional Chinese fighting and folktales to tell a tale. Following these performances are eleven skill acts, where performers display their mastery of traditional weapons, including acrobatic monkey-poles, nunchucks and swords.
Totaling around forty to fifty minutes in length, the performances also feature an assortment of traditional instruments, including Chinese drums, gongs, cymbals and suonas. The Kylin Dance is commonly performed at traditional celebrations and social gatherings, and it embodies the rich ethnic and folk heritage of those who created it. Unlike many traditional arts, it has remained active through the years, and it serves as a invaluable asset to the study of China’s folk dance, music, recreation, anthropology and folklore.
This piece is a translated work, translated from Chinese to English as part of the Shenzhen Nonmaterial Heritage Project of Shenzhen Polytechnic University and Shenzhen Museum.