Does Inheritance Mean Persistence in Art or Lack of Innovation? Shehuo, Ancient Chinese Performance Art

Published: 26.05.2020
Felicia Li
Felicia Li

Felicia Li
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Edited at:
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Photo by Xinhua Yang.
Photo by Xinhua Yang

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Felicia Li analyzes "Shehuo", which builds the traditional base to mass-produced folk art originating from China. Making the bridge to contemporary Chinese art jewelry, she concludes that the designs originate from western colleges and that they are not based on Chinas society and art. In her opinion, the Chinese style of art should be based on culture and experience to be more interesting and meaningful, ending with the question if Chinese contemporary jeweller has already appeared, or if it's just based on influences from abroad. 

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Does inheritance mean preservation of culture and persistence in art or lack of innovation? A netizen once commented, “If only there were people who were willing to learn traditional craftsmanship, let alone innovation.” This reveals the dilemma that traditional culture and art are in. While the development of human civilization has brought benefits, modern civilization has its pathetic aspect which spurs us to do more. But if we only have a superficial knowledge of the culture that shapes the national spirit, how can we produce better jewels of contemporary art? In the near future, we really wish to share some stories about Chinese folk culture and art. If there are any problems or discrepancies, do not hesitate to write to us and discuss with us.

When it comes to Chinese culture and art, we too often focus on the art of the royal palace, ignoring the importance and charm of folk culture and art. With a history of thousands of years, folk culture and art in various forms allow us a glimpse into the vein of Chinese mythology. We can say that almost all of them derive from the background of Chinese mythology. (This is one of the major reasons why Vonmo, a contemporary Chinese jewelry studio, organized its first curatorial exhibition on the theme “Chinese Mythology”.)

In the whole series of traditional folk cultural Shehuo activities, the well-known dragon dances and lion dances can only make their appearance as the last two ones in order, which reflects Shehuo is so complex a system (a comprehensive folk performance art system integrating folk dances, music, fine arts, crafts, opera, quyi, vaudeville, Chinese boxing, acrobatics, literature and sports). As a custom passed down from generation to generation, Shehuo is held around the fifteenth day of the first lunar month every year, making a huge influence in Gansu and Shaanxi and engaging people of all ages. It is a pity that the unique and lively scene like this is rare nowadays, so, tracing and recording shehuo is not only to remember the childhood but to hope that more people understand the significance and value of folk customs. (Photos about shehuo in this article are provided by relatives and friends from hometown Shaanxi.)

Lion Dances and Dragon Dances 2008 年 阎良区社火, Shehuo in Yanliang District in 2008 摄影师 张兴怀, Photo by Xinghuai Zhang.

Shehuo has its root in the ancient sacrificial offerings of Nuo dance. Most of its activities derive and are adapted from stories in the Classic of Mountains and Seas and the Investiture of the Gods. Its name varies from place to place, such as shehu (shooting tiger), taiga (lifting the pavilion), yabaxi (pantomime), zhuanggushi (stories telling), and zhachangzi (creating a lively atmosphere). Its specific forms also vary greatly with regions. In Shaanxi, shehuo is the combination of gods worship and entertainment. As the drum bangs, more than one hundred kinds of sounds and dances emerge, creating a unique culture in numerous distinctive forms. It is like the twin sister of the folk ‘Temple Fair’, were sweeping the courtyard and redeem a vow to the gods through burning incense are the grand events in the villages. Shehuo has profound implications. Just like the folklore goes, “shehuo entertains the gods while burning incense entertains the people”.

At a Small or Large Scale?
After the fifth day of the first lunar month each year, representative participants from each community will gather together to discuss the scale of activities. Shehuotou, the leader, will be selected by the masses to decide the time for preparation, venue, show route, division of labor, fund raising, cooking and other related plans. Then, they do programming and select actors. There is a strict division of labor for everything, including xinzi, (dressing up children and letting them stand at some specific position on the stage), paper works, clothing, props and makeup. The manpower, materials and money of all families can be leveraged for free. After full preparation, the participants will burn incense, set up tablets, and worship the gods in the temple one or two days in advance. Once the tour starts on the day of shehuo, people flood in from all directions. Despite the huge crowd, the place is in unexpectedly good order, because there is a set of conventional rules that are observed by everyone. China is different from the West in terms of traditional morality and collective consciousness of honor - being proud of being self-conscious and sacrificing personal interests for the collective, which embody the common spirit or talent of a nation.

A grand folk event of shehuo is no less festive than the music festivals and carnivals today. The performance is surrounded by a sea of people that make rounds of streets and alleyways. If drama is designed for the stage only, then the art of shehuo is for the streets, squares and fields, with inclusive forms like the colorful ‘xinzi’, interesting ‘stilts’, powerful and majestic ‘dancing lions’, flowing ‘dragon lanterns’, and nostalgic ‘drought boats’. They appear one by one to the sounds of firecrackers, gongs and drums, engaging people of all ages into the bustling Shehuo.

2017年2月  临潼栎阳社火锣鼓队, Gongs and Drums Team of Yueyang County, Lintong District in February 2017. 摄影师 杨新华, Photo by Xinhua Yang.

During preparation and presentation of shehuo, there are some ‘competitions’ (similar to today’s hip-hop and rapper battle): before the shehuo starts, people may be organized to challenge their neighbors for even a few nights until the other party compromises and agrees to play together on the day of shehuo; When different shehuo teams encounter each other, a battle among them is also common as they try to find out which team is a notch above. They provoke each other by performing the contents or characters of some certain repertoires, and when they reach an agreement, they give away their xinzi as a token of friendship. Such a move allows them to learn from others’ strengths and overcome their own weaknesses. It also indicates a good relationship with relatives and friends, which fully arouses the participants’ passion.

2008年 阎良区社火, Shehuo in Yanliang District in 2008 摄影师 张兴怀, Photo by Xinghuai Zhang.

There are more than 260 kinds of shehuo art in central Shaanxi that can be roughly divided according to the form of performance into shehuo with performers walking on the streets and fields (bushehuo, beishehuo, taishehuo, paoshehuo, etc.), shehuo with animals as transportation (like mashehuo), shehuo with xinzi installed on the vehicles (caiche shehuo, gaotaixin shehuo, etc.), and freestyle shehuo (ditan shehuo, chuang shehuo, dou shehui, zhishehuo, xueshehuo, etc.). Performance varies greatly from region to region.

Shouldering-shehuo, 2017年2月  临潼栎阳社火, Shehuo in Yueyang County, Lintong District in February 2017 摄影师 杨新华, Photo by Xinhua Yang.

The Art of Xinzi
In my opinion, the art of xinzi is a kind of large-scale installation art or performance art. An impeccable high platform with a hidden mechanism structure is sophisticatedly designed based on the principles of mechanics and the content of the performance. There are pingtai xinzixinzi standing on the platform, gaogan xinzixinzi hanging on a high pole, zhuanxinzi  (rotating xinzi), diaoxinzi(lifted xinzi)and other types. Only the courageous and handsome children between 5 and 8 years old will be selected to perform as the xinzi. Painful as the process is, being chosen is regarded as a happy event that brings honor to the family and that is worth showing off in match-making after their adulthood. During the performance, the child who is believed to be handsome and superb in acting will be “draped” in a red satin in public, which, in the era of scarce supplies, was undoubtedly the highest reward among folk activities.

高台芯子 Xinzi on a High Platform, 2008年 阎良区社火, Shehuo in Yanliang District in 2008 摄影师 张兴怀, Photo by Xinghuai Zhang.

Child Dressed as Xinzi, 2017年2月 临潼栎阳社火, Shehuo in Yueyang County, Lintong District in February 2017, 摄影师 杨新华, Photo by Xinhua Yang.

Hieronymus Bosch《人间乐园》(来自于网络), The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch (from the Internet).

The works by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch are like demon mirrors that allow viewers to see the nature of society. One of them, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is strikingly similar to the xueshehuo in the East. Xueshehuo is a controversial form of shehuo activity in China, as it features mystery, blood, eeriness, and horror (with special makeup). I believe that xueshehuo is of practical significance because it is probably a form through which the ancestors educated people and persuade them to do good deeds. Although I was extremely reluctant to see those scary scenes as an ignorant child, the customs deeply stamped in my heart (they also inspired my creation of The Runaway Water Sprite). The fact that xueshehuo is now gradually fading out of people’s sight gives me a sense of loss (although I still insist that it is not suitable for the children, it is of great significance to the nation).

Xueshehuo varies from place to place. For example, in Dali and Heyang of Shaanxi, traditional military plays on the theme of killing and fighting as well as legends of gods and ghosts educate people to do good deeds instead of evil when they are alive, and draw a lesson from blood. The xueshehuo of Sansi Village reproduces the story that Wu Song kills Ximen Qing to avenge his brother in Water Margin (Under the leadership of Wu Song, 13 thugs from Ximen Qing’s side are conquered, with eyebrows pierced by scissors and awls, heads split by kitchen knives and guillotines, and foreheads cut by benches and bricks. One is penetrated by a sword through the stomach, intestines flowing out. Ximen Qing’s thugs mean to attack Wu Song with knives and axe, only to be killed by Wu Song instead. These are the joyous scenes of elimination of the wicked evildoers.), so as to express the hate to evil and worship of justice, as well as to deter the evil. The xueshehuo of Xingping shows the eight ways of beheading in ancient official slaughterhouses, vividly reproducing how countless criminals received capital punishment.

以上三张照片来自网络, These photos come from the internet and show the xueshehuo.

2017年春节  兴平, 2017 Spring Festival in Xingping 摄影师 程明名, Photo by Mingming Cheng.

The hell and other scenes that express the traditional view of life and death are all fictitious images of hell used to warn the people not to do evils, or they will all go to hell (A place guarded by Ox-Head and Horse-Face, and the Heibai Wuchang. For those who do evils, their tongues will be pulled out, or they will be pierced by scissors, split in the abdomen, peeled, sent up the mountain of swords, thrown into the pot of boiling oil, or even dismembered.) Looking at the bloody scenes of “slaughter”, one may feel as if the ghosts of underworld come out to whine about their pain.

The repertoire of Shehuo performance is diversified, including myths, legends, historical stories, and unofficial history. To be specific, one may find stories like Shennong Tasted Hundreds of Herbs, Great Flood of Gun-Yu, Invention of Chinese Characters by Cang Jie, Three Warriors’ Fight with Lv Bu, Havoc in Heaven, Daguanyuan, Three Assaults on Zhujiazhuang, Investiture of the Gods, and Legend of the White Snake, etc. They are presented in the form of pantomimes accompanied by the sound of gongs and drums. There is usually a quick shift from a story to another after the performers walking around the venue, so people can enjoy four to five shows a day. The superb skills of folk artists are thus self-evident.

Four Actors Performing Journey to the West on Stilts 2008年 阎良区社火, Shehuo of Yanliang District in 2008 摄影师 张兴怀, Photo by Xinghuai Zhang.

The performers of “Drought boats” stand in the middle of the “lotus boats”, sway the hulls to the rhythm of music, and dance as if they were rowing on the lake. This program is used to commemorate Dayu for his achievements in stopping floods.

跑旱船 Drought Boats, 2008年 阎良区社火, Shehuo of Yanliang District in 2008 摄影师 张兴怀, Photo by Xinghuai Zhang.

I vaguely remember that there were always two strange “big head dolls” in the shehuo team, but now I know they are characters of a love story - the famous shehuo pantomime Big Head Monk Plays with Cui Liu. The two performers with “big heads” on stilts twist their bodies rhythmically to the sound of gongs and drums, teasing and chasing each other. This kind of dramatic exaggeration is a feature of Chinese culture, in addition to subtlety. Seeing beauty in ugliness is a way to highlight the lovers who do not care about secular views.

“大头和尚戏翠柳”(左一和左二), Big Head Monk Plays with Cui Liu (1st and 2nd on the left), Dajinzhi (Right), 2008年 阎良区社火, Shehuo of Yanliang District in 2008, 摄影师 张兴怀, Photo by Xinghuai Zhang.

In addition to mythology, historical stories are also popular, like Dajinzhi (a story about how the unruly and willful Princess Tangping was educated for her disrespect to the elders and finally reconciled with her family.)

Hand-painted Masks, Costumes and Props
What impresses people most is probably colorful masks, costumes, and strange props. There is a set of rules specifying the masks, costumes and props for different characters. Otherwise, any discrepancies will become laughingstocks in the business. That is why the saying goes, “Being worn-out is better than being taken wrong.”

各色脸谱 Various Masks, 摄影师 杨新华 Photo by Xinghua Yang.

Shehuo masks are far more wonderful and peculiar than the exquisite ones used for opera in cities. They are made by senior folk artists with oil paint mixed with honey, rock sugar, and egg white. Colors are used to indicate the personalities of the characters, red for loyalty, white for cunningness, black for uprightness, yellow for brutality, blue for rashness, green for chivalrousness, and gold and silver for demons and ghosts. Some masks are more difficult to make. For example, to make a mask of Chiyou, the skilled craftsman who is also the performer needs to stick the eggshell of 9 eggs to the face one day in advance and wait until they are fixed for painting. The mask of Yang Ren is also very special. Yang Ren is blinded by King Zhou of Shang Dynasty because of his frank advice. Later, two hands grow from his eyes, and two eyes from his palms so that he is able to ‘see through everything in the world’. In recent years, due to the decline in shehuo activities, people have painted shehuo masks on wooden boards, ladles, gourds, etc. to exorcise evil spirits.

Shehuo costumes are designed by gender, age, personality and status with extremely special styles, colors and patterns. While being highly decorative, the various shehuo props are also an indispensable means to enhance the effect of performance.

Cultural life was still colorful in the era of underdevelopment. Even in the age of shorted-material and war, they found ways to pray or to seek comfort for the difficult life through cultural and artistic activities. Shehuo is a cultural feast that allows people to have joy and spiritual comfort. During the Spring Festival, the shehuo team visit courtyards of all households to exorcise the god of plague and bless the whole family with good health, safety and longevity. After a lively night, the mess will be cleaned up and the shehuotou for the next year will be selected, marking the end of shehuo for the old year and ushering in a new and busy year. As the older generation has pass away in recent years, shehuo, which has been passed down for many years, is fading out, leaving behind only legends and memories.

摄影师 杨新华, Photo by Xinhua Yang.

According to the collected information, a large number of modern folk arts (including cloth products, paper-cuts, festive lanterns, crispy noodles and ladles) originate from shehuo. The Chinese government has organized the people to mass-produce works of folk art to alleviate the poverty and earn foreign exchange. Yet such tourist goods, which are detached from folk culture, give me an inexplicable sense of regret and sadness, though they are part of the trend of social development. It is true that the government is trying to preserve, inherit and promote folk art and culture, but how much do the so-called big IP as well as cultural and creative products represent the essence of traditional culture? How many people will still remember the culture after a shopping rush? Most of them are abandoned or dusted. It is hardly possible to make both ends meet.

We need to invest a lot of time to study the essence of traditional art and conduct theoretical research. However, the reality is that ‘we cannot keep up with the evolution of traditional culture and art, the impact of market commodification, or the decline in folk art.’ Modernity will never slow down its pace to wait for us.

Like most products of contemporary art, contemporary art jewelry is a concept separated from traditional jewelry under the influence of different schools and movements of art in the West. Contemporary Chinese art jewelry does not have much connection with the development of China’s society and art, because it is designed, as it seems, through methods borrowed from the Western colleges and universities by the domestic ones, having little thing to do with the development of China’s society and art (this does not mean that to make contemporary art jewelry, we have to study abroad, for we can extract elements from the time-honored Chinese art and culture.). Our style of art should be based on culture and experience. In this way, our art style will be more interesting and meaningful compared with the irrelevant, novel expressions. Besides, people can fully understand the spirit of artist without an over-interpretation. Recent years have seen many art activities without spirit core that have been stacked up monotonously. The boring and meaningless “works of art”, instead, draw great attention. This prompts me to think that contemporary Chinese art jewelry has not yet really appeared, because without the study and research of historical materials and the judgment of the present and the future, how can we talk about Chinese contemporary art jewelry?

The Art of Shehuo in Central Shaanxi Plain by Cui Hao.
The Fourteen Tours Along the Yellow River.
Shaanxi Provincial Chronicles: Culture and Art.
Special Thanks To
Photographer Xinhua Yang, Photographer Xinghuai Zhang, Photographer Mingming Cheng.

About the author

Felicia Li is a contemporary art jewelry designer, She has been exploring the innovation direction in which contemporary art jewelry design and the traditional Chinese crafts are integrated. She formally established the Vonmo personal studio in 2016.