Performing arts

Riding high

Updated: Apr 19, 2022 By Yang Feiyue in Beijing and Sun Ruisheng in Taiyuan (China Daily) Print
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The parade of naoge performers is popular in Ekou town, Shanxi province. [Photo/China Daily]

Ancient Shanxi folk art is receiving more attention thanks to dedicated inheritors, Yang Feiyue in Beijing and Sun Ruisheng in Taiyuan report.

From a distance, she looks like a little fairy that's dancing. Moving closer, it becomes clear that the child is wearing heavy makeup and a bright-colored costume, akin to those seen in Chinese opera, and is performing on an iron-framed stand resting on an adult's shoulders.

This is a traditional show called naoge that was named a national intangible cultural heritage in 2008. The Chinese character nao means "hoisting" in the local dialect of Shanxi province, while ge refers to something similar to an attic.

"Standing high against the blue sky, children represent our wishes and ambition," says Hao Laixi, a master of the performance from Ekou town in Daixian county, Shanxi.

Naoge boasts a history of more than 1,700 years, as indicated by unearthed terracotta figurines from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581). Hao has been familiar with naoge since childhood in Ekou, which is a birthplace of the folk art. He was first involved in the performance at the age of 5.

"I have looked forward to naoge ever since, especially during Spring Festival," Hao says.

Now 75 years old, Hao says, his parents would dress him up and put him on the stand, an act that is considered by locals to bring good fortune and keep people safe.

"It was one of the things that every child in Ekou most wished for," Hao says.

For beginners, it might feel a bit scary after being hoisted that high, but once the music starts and people around start cheering, any fear a child might have usually gives way to excitement, he says.

Muscle strength

After performing on the shoulders of adults for years, at the age of 22, Hao became a bearer himself, and the enthusiasm for the art kept him going for decades. In 2017, he was named a national inheritor of the folk art.

An iron stand weighs at least 15 kilograms, and with a child's weight of 20 to 30 kg, a bearer has to carry about 40 kg for two hours of parading, including more than 20 minutes of intense performance.

"It's demanding to deliver a naoge show," Hao says.

The bearers need to have solid footwork, strong muscles, and be flexible enough to deliver steady dance moves under the weight, while the children above also perform to the same rhythm, such as waving their long sleeves or doing somersaults.

"Strength and skill are both important," Hao says. "That strength is also evident in how they steadily follow the drum beat."

Hao developed chronic shoulder and lower back problems after years of performing such shows, but he carried on.

"It is not just me, every naoge performer has been doing so, which is how the art form has been carried forward one generation after another," Hao says.

He enjoys reminiscing about the lively scenes from Spring Festivals past. Almost every local village had a naoge team, the total number of which reached more than 60 in Ekou town.

"It was a sensation in which all households used to take part," he says.

Gao Junping, a local resident, is one of the faithful fans of the performances.

"It's a sight on the streets of Daixian county, with all the performing teams cooperating and competing with one another," Gao says.

Chen Wenxiu, deputy head of Daixian, considers naoge to be a mime with airborne dancing and acrobatics.

"It's a comprehensive art form that integrates traditional culture," Chen says, adding that children often play characters from popular folk tales like The Legend of the White Snake, and classics like A Dream of Red Mansions, written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Naoge has long been part of local life in Ekou.

"Farmers would drop their pickaxes in their free time, put on some music, hold up a stand and dance," Chen says.

In earlier times, farmers would put their produce, including peppers and corn, on the stands to celebrate the harvest season and pray for favorable weather, says Li Peigen, a local cultural scholar.

The folk art evolved to introduce performances based on historical or legendary figures, Li adds.

Children get to know more about Chinese culture and folk customs through their participation in naoge, and the practice of performing on a high stand can also toughen their minds.

Research institute

Local authorities have established a naoge protection and research institute, and are providing funds for equipment and training. Officials are encouraging more people to join the work of protecting and developing the folk art.

Hao Laixi's 43-year-old son, Hao Yongjun, has followed in his father's footsteps.

"My father has been by my side and taught me bit by bit how to raise the stand and execute the dance moves," Hao Yongjun says.

In 2006, the folk art made its way to the nationally televised show Xingguang Dadao (Avenue of Stars) and received good reviews. The public exposure got the performers more invitations from across the country.

Hao Yongjun participated in the first national yangko (folk-style dance) festival in Qingdao, Shandong province, in 2008.

"Some foreigners in the audience thought the children on the stand weren't real at first. Their jaws dropped once the children came down and said 'hello' to them," he recalls.

The naoge team from Ekou won "best performance" at the festival. In 2013, their performance won over experts at Dance World, a show that started broadcasting on China Central Television in 1999.

"Ekou naoge is extraordinary, and I have never seen such a grand folk dance," says Tang Yi, a teacher from Beijing Dance Academy. "It is perfect in its music, dance, clothing, props and equipment."

Such public events thrill Hao Laixi, who is now working on ways to improve performances. "The existing iron stands are heavy and hard to maintain. I heard that carbon fiber is light and sturdy."

He says he plans to contact tech enterprises to explore such options, but he stresses that the bottom line is still the essence of tradition.

What concerns Hao Laixi about the folk art's development is the lack of participation by young people.

"Many of them don't have enough shoulder strength, partly due to a lack of exercise," he says. "But as long as they are willing to learn, we will hold nothing back and teach them everything we know."

Hao Laixi deems it his most important mission to carry this art forward.

When Hao Yongjun and his son, Hao Jincheng, proposed to livestream naoge during this year's Spring Festival in January, Hao Laixi readily agreed. "It helps people remember the art while spicing up their Spring Festival experience," he says.

Ji Liangsheng, deputy director of Daixian culture and tourism bureau, says more financial support will be given to naoge and other local intangible cultural elements in the future. Efforts will also be made to integrate them into tourism.

Peng Ke'er contributed to the story.

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