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The Dialectics of Virtuosity: Dance in the People's Republic of China, 1949-2009


Under state socialism in the People's Republic of China, dancers' bodies became important sites for the ongoing negotiation of two paradoxes at the heart of the socialist project, both in China and globally. The first is the valorization of physical labor as a path to positive social reform and personal enlightenment. The second is a dialectical approach to epistemology, in which world-knowing is connected to world-making. In both cases, dancers in China found themselves, their bodies, and their work at the center of conflicting ideals, often in which the state upheld, through its policies and standards, what seemed to be conflicting points of view and directions of action. Since they occupy the unusual position of being cultural workers who labor with their bodies, dancers were successively the heroes and the victims in an ever unresolved national debate over the value of mental versus physical labor. In the case of socialist realist epistemology, dancers were called upon to use their bodies and their experiences to generate realistic depictions of a world that was, according to official ideology, always in a process of being formed. In their embodied expressions of regional, cultural, and national identities in the making of new "Chinese" dance forms, dancers contributed to the affective and aesthetic strength of state-supported worldviews, even while recognizing that these views were often "real" and "true" only because they were politically correct. The understanding of "Chinese traditional culture" applied by dance practitioners in the making of Chinese dance forms in the People's Republic of China applies a dialectical epistemology drawn from Chinese socialist realism, Chinese postcolonial nationalism, and indigenous Chinese aesthetic theory. In this dialectical epistemology, Chinese traditional culture is understood as something that can be investigated, inherited, and remade through dance practice envisioned as a form of cultural research.

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