Transmediating Kinesthesia: Wu Xiaobang
and Modern Dance in China, 1929–1939

By Nan Ma

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no.1  (Spring 2016), pp. 129-173

The subject under study is Wu Xiaobang (1906-1995)—the first professional artistic dancer in modern China—and his practices of modern dance in Tokyo and Shanghai from 1929 to 1939. In creating a new identity for dance in China, touring the whole country to disseminate his arts, establishing studios and schools to educate the first generation of artistic dancers, and publishing books on dance aesthetics, pedagogy, histories, and critical reviews, Wu, known as the “father of China’s New dance,” stands as a distinct figure in the cultural history of modern China.

The essay traces Wu’s learning, choreographing, and performing experiences in Tokyo and Shanghai to contextualize the particular problems in the transnational travel of modern dance to China. By situating the evolvement of modern dance in a “web of relations” with the other more established New literary and art forms in the 1930s, the study highlights the distinct role of dance as a unique bodily medium, which is epitomized by kinesthesia, a core concept in the global discourse of modern dance.

Kinesthesia, a word combining movement (kine) and sensation (aesthesia), refers to the affective and contagious nature of human bodily movement. The significance of the concept lies in its potential of transforming the spectators off stage into quasi-participants of the performance on stage and thus blurs the distinction between the “active” performer and the “passive” audience. By promoting kinesthesia, which supposedly turns the body into a non-linguistic and non-representational dynamic engine of meaning making and communication, the discourse of modern dance challenges, first, the conception of the body as a passive fetish or metaphor, on which external meanings are inscribed, and second, the semiotic system of language- and text-based paradigms.

However, in his dance practices, Wu did not pit kinesthesia against language and narrative. The strategy Wu adopted may be called “reverse integration”—that is, dance, which was originally integrated in other arts (theater, for example), claims its independence by reversely integrating elements of those arts (e.g., narrative, speech, and music) into its kinesthesia, rather than excluding those from it.

It is argued that this strategy of transmediation was partly necessitated by the fact that modern dance was a “latecomer” in the field of other more well-established modern art forms, striving to establish its legitimacy and independence in relation to the other more powerful arts. It was also a result of the more or less conflicting dual goals of modern dance in China—to position itself as an urban high art on the one hand, and, on the other hand, as a useful tool for mass enlightenment and mobilization in an age of national crisis and total war. It is further demonstrated that the strategy of reverse integration in Wu’s modern dance was by no means a smooth process, but instead fraught with dilemmas and diverging momentums.