Mount Wuliang, in Nanjian County (a county in western Yunnan Province, in Southwest China), is inhabited by ethnic Yi people, who excel in singing and dancing. When Yi people attend weddings, funerals or celebrations to mark festivals, they often perform Tiaocai (literally meaning "serving dishes by dancing"), a folk dance used by Yi people to express their emotions. The family of Abenzhi lives in Mount Wuliang. Abenzhi, his wife and children have dedicated their lives to inheriting and protecting Tiaocai dance tradition, and to introducing the unique dance form to people from home and abroad.
During a banquet, Yi dancers move their bodies in sync with the background music. The dancers also carry various foods — on plates on their heads — from the kitchen to the tables where guests are seated. This form of dance is called Tiaocai. The Yi people use this form of dance to express the warmest welcome for their guests.
In 2008, the Tiaocai dance, performed by Yi people in Nanjian County, was added to the list of China's National Intangible Cultural Heritage.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, visited the United Kingdom in October 2015, four dancers from Nanjian Tiaocai Art Troupe performed, with Chinese singer Sa Dingding, during a creative-industry exhibition. Xi and Peng attended the exhibition and they watched that performance. Abenzhi was director of that art troupe.
Abenzhi was born into a folk artist's family in 1962. His father, Ayubang, was a good dancer who led other dancers during Tiaocai performances. When Abenzhi was a little boy, Ayubang sometimes carried his son on his back during Tiaocai performances in his hometown, a village in Mount Wuliang.
Abenzhi met Chen Huailiang, a woman in his village, in 1982. They fell in love and got married. When Abenzhi was in his early twenties, he spent most of his time working on his family's farm, so he could support his family, including his parents. Although he was busy with farm work almost every day, he managed to make time to participate in dance performances in his hometown.
Influenced by his father, Abenzhi developed a great interest in Tiaocai dance. He sometimes competed with other outstanding dancers in Mount Wuliang. Abenzhi was a quick learner. He was able to carry a sheng (a reed pipe wind instrument) in one hand while he used his other hand to make gestures and lead other dancers during performances.
To help her husband participate in Tiaocai performances and/or competitions, Chen shouldered most of the family's housework. Abenzhi, who excelled in organizing dancers' participation in Tiaocai performances, soon became a well-known leader of dancers in Mount Wuliang. A great number of newlyweds invited Abenzhi and his team to perform during their weddings.
More Than a Job
Abenzhi and a dance troupe, composed of villagers from Nanjian County, visited Beijing twice in 1986. They participated in national ethnic dance and folk music competitions both times. Their dances, which highlighted the Yi people's ethnic culture and art, impressed audiences, including professional folk dancers.
During the autumn of 1991, Abenzhi directed a dance, which was performed by more than 300 dancers from Yunnan Province. That dance was performed at the National Traditional Games of Ethnic Minorities of the People's Republic of China, which was held in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in November that year. At that time, Abenzhi and Chen were planning to restore their house. They soon put their plan on hold, so Abenzhi could go to Kunming (capital of Yunnan Province) to participate in the rehearsal. Abenzhi spent three months rehearsing with the big team, the members of which eventually gave a very successful performance.
Also in 1991, Abenzhi got to know Yang Liping, the famous female dancer who invited Abenzhi to perform in a film about Yunnan Province. Abenzhi once said that he believed Tiaocai was a folk dance "rooted in Mount Wuliang." He was willing to stay in Nanjian County to inherit the unique dance form. He began working with the county's art troupe in 1992. He gave much of his earnings to his wife to support their family, and he spent the rest of his money buying books and/or attending dance courses to improve his performance skills.
For the past three decades, Abenzhi has dedicated his life to inheriting and innovating Tiaocai dance skills. Tiaocai was originally a kind of dance that was performed solely during banquets. However, Abenzhi has developed several other forms of the dance. Nowadays, Tiaocai dance can be performed during various cultural activities. Dancers can also perform in hotels or at public squares.
Generation to Generation
When people talk about Tiaocai in Nanjian County, they most likely will mention a middle-aged man, who has a baldhead and thick beard. That man is no other than Abenzhi. He is widely considered the "spokesperson" of Tiaocai dance in Nanjian. Why? Abenzhi is responsible for directing almost all of the Tiaocai dances performed during grand cultural activities held in Nanjian County. For example, the county hosted its first Tiaocai art festival in August 2001. Abenzhi was director and chief choreographer of a performance by 32 Tiaocai teams, with a combined 2,243 dancers.
Since he participated in his first Tiaocai dance in 1980, Abenzhi has encouraged and trained nearly 10,000 people to perform Tiaocai dances. Given his efforts, more and more people, from home and abroad, have developed an interest in the dance form, which reflects the beautiful art and spirit of the Yi ethnic group.
People who live in the mountainous regions of Nanjian County like to sing the following song: "Flowers will not look that beautiful if there's no leaf growing around them; leaves help reflect the beauty and freshness of flowers."
Says Abenzhi: "If the Tiaocai dance represents the 'flower' of my life, the great support I have received from my wife and family will be the 'leaves' that help reflect the beauty of the dance."
He is grateful that his wife often tells him to do what he likes to do. Besides taking part in dance performances, what are the happy moments in Abenzhi's life? "Riding my motorcycle to pick up my grandson after he finishes his classes. I have actually taught my grandson some simple movements. Now, my grandson, who is a primary school student (Grade 2), is able to perform the most basic Tiaocai dance," Abenzhi says, proudly.
Family culture has long been rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Family helps form the foundation that supports each person's life, and which helps each person as he/she develops as a person. Each family is regarded as a cell of society. The level of harmony in a family affects the development of civilization, and the stability and harmony of society.
In response to the "Looking For The Most Beautiful Families" campaign, initiated by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) in February 2014, Women of China English Monthly has published articles, since the March 2014 edition, to share families' stories about their happy and harmonious lives, and about their family traditions and virtues.
Executive Editors: YE SHAN and ZHANG JIAMIN, Women of China English Monthly October 2016 Issue)
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