Gema Tsering:Dancing beyond the Mountains

By staff reporter LI YUAN

 Xueqiang is standard entertainment at gatherings and parties. Photo courtesy of the Publicity Department of Derong County.


Gema Tsering was born in 1930 to a family of Xueqiang dancers in Zishi Village of Zigeng Town in Derong County, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. He is the third generation in this family of dancers. At the age of 15, he started to learn how to dance from his father, a well-known performer locally, but he soon won his own fame. In 1980, Tsering began to voluntarily teach dancing and teamed up with amateurs to perform across the town. In 1987, the government awarded him for his excellent skills, and in 1990 his troupe won the bronze medal at Derong’s first arts festival. In 2012, Tsering was nominated an inheritor of national intangible cultural heritage.


THE plaza in Waka Town is crowded with locals watching a Xueqiang performance. On the leader’s orders, about 20 dancers start singing and dancing, stomping their feet rhythmically. The male dancers wear leather hats and boots and the female performers pleated skirts and jewelry. After about 20 minutes, the performance reaches its climax, and the dancers proclaim the blessing Tashi Delek in unison.


Xueqiang, which literally means “dance together,” is a folk courtship dance popular in Waka Town of Derong County, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. It originates in the Kangba area, where it is said people are practically born singing and dancing.


Eighty-five-year-old Gema Tsering is the inheritor of this artistic form. Seeing young people learn the dance is what makes him happiest; only when the younger generation embrace and learn this ancient art can it stand the tests of modern life.


A Folk Courtship Dance


Xueqiang, also called “courtship dance,” has won Derong County national fame among cultural workers and researchers. It was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2008. However, the county is still largely unknown in the country because of its remote location on the borders of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet, far from the limelight.


In Derong dialect, xue means courting and qiang means jumping. Over time, Xueqiang became standard entertainment at gatherings and parties. Especially at night during the harvest festival, revelers would dance the Xueqiang around a bonfire while drinking and singing. Some would risk “jumping the bonfire,” making the night even more exciting.


Xueqiang has no accompaniment or props. Its main features are the stomping and stepping rhythms that are sometimes strong and powerful, sometimes soft and free. The synchronized pounding of thick leather boots is a thrilling sight.


Tibetan composer Ajin explained to the reporter that Xueqiang singing is complicated in its tune structure, which is usually divided into four parts – intro, bridge, verse, and outro. The intervals are full of ups and downs, while the melody is bright and natural. The scales mainly comprise five tones. At the end of the melody, dancers stomp their feet to fill the pause and create a penetrating, lingering ending. The stomping adds dynamism to the song and dance.


As for the origins of Xueqiang, according to folklore, it can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when Princess Wencheng was sent to marry the King of Tubo, an ancient kingdom in Tibet. The local headman of Derong, Zigeng Awu, called local artists together to compose songs and choreograph dances to greet the princess as she passed through. Eventually, Xueqiang was created, combining the artistic spirits of different ethnic groups co-existing at the time: Han, Tibetan, Naxi, and Bai.


However, this is probably a legend. In recent years, an archaeological research team investigated the ancient route connecting the interior and Tubo. They concluded that the Tang princess would have taken a route via Sershul in the northwest of Garzi, quite a distance from Derong in the southwest corner of the prefecture. Some believe that the dance originated in Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la in neighboring Yunnan Province, absorbing elements of multiple ethnic groups there. According to the records of the Dianyun Chronicles, the Naxi ethnic group governed a vast area including Derong in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Some scholars hence speculate that Xueqiang originated in dances of the Naxi people.


Passing down Dancing Skills


Gema Tsering is the third generation of dancers in his family. His father, Lorong Tashi, was known to be a good dancer in the town. At a very young age, Tsering surprised his family and neighbors with his strong interest in and talent for mimicking the singing and dancing he saw. He formally served an apprenticeship with his father at the age of 15, and soon won his own fame locally.


Xueqiang has been passed down in words and stories. In 1980, Gema Tsering organized amateur troupes in Zishi and Waka villages to teach the younger generation, including his three children, the skills of dancing.


Tsering also composed songs and choreographed dance steps to absorb elements of the new times. He led his troupes to perform in Tardo, capital of Garze, many times. In 1987, he was awarded by the county government, and the troupe came second in a dancing competition. In the first arts festival held in Derong in 1990, his troupe won third place.


Seeing young people learn this dance makes Tsering happiest. “Xueqiang is a mixture of multiple cultural characteristics such as Han, Tibetan, and Naxi. It is a special art form of Waka Village, but also a reflection of the integration of ethnic groups,” Tsering said. The veteran dancer praised young successors as well as the efforts made by the government to preserve this ancient art. “Zishi and Waka villages have organized troupes. I know the future for the dance is bright.” As he said this he began to sing in joy. His ballad was melodious and soft, reaching deep into the heart of anyone who was listening.


Beyond the Mountains


Although an integral part of China’s national heritage, Xueqiang remains alien to most people, partly because of the remote location of Derong. As popular culture dominates, this ancient art form needs to go beyond the mountains that confine it and undergo a revival. This is a real test for Derong people.


Now in his 80s, Tsering is no longer able to dance. But he hums Xueqiang ballads all day long and takes part in dance rehearsals, offering advice and giving instructions to the new generation of learners. The current troupe leader and Tsering’s apprentice, 53-year-old Tamdrin Norbu, began dancing at the age of 17. Now he focuses on promoting the dance and sharing his skills with young people.


“Xueqiang features strong local and ethnic characteristics,” Norbu said of his understanding of the dance. “It embodies the spirit and values of the Derong people that are recognized by artists and scholars.”


The artistic and academic values of Xueqiang have indeed aroused attention from the government. In 2003, the county allocated RMB 800,000 to collect, organize, record, categorize, and catalogue this arts heritage, and on that basis, to utilize multi-media tools to preserve as well as circulate and promote it.


To preserve the nation’s intangible cultural heritage, the culture and tourism department of Derong County awarded an annual grant of RMB 8,000 to Gema Tsering, encouraging him to continue to teach his skills.


In recent years, the Xueqiang Troupe of Derong has had more opportunities to perform throughout the country. In 2003, Temdrin Norbu led a troupe of 40 people attending the fourth Arts Festival of International Intangible Cultural Heritage in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. The troupe’s dance was hailed as an excellent performance. In 2014, they were also invited to dance at the Garze Prefecture Spring Festival gala.


“Nowadays, most of our performances are for free,” said Norbu, “but we hope to have more opportunities for paid performances as the region’s tourism develops.”


Derong County has set up a cultural and arts association based on the original Xueqiang troupe. The members are aged between 20 and 50, and the team is growing. The development of tourism is energizing Xueqiang. “Unique to Derong, Xueqiang has a special appeal for locals as well as tourists,” Norbu said.


Farmers used to dance after a day’s hard work to entertain themselves. Nowadays, they dance to promote and pass down the unique ethnic performance art form. “My greatest ambition is to take my troupe to every corner of the country, so that more people can discover the dance,” Norbu said.