So You Think Teochews Can't Dance?

Several cultures have folk dances that are world-renowned, such as the Maori Haka war dance, the Filipino Tinikling bamboo dance, the Irish stepdance and the Cossack Hopak dance. Famous for our food and business acumen, we Teochews are not immediately recognised for our dance moves? Can we dance?
A resounding yes! And we have more than one...

History of Teochew Traditional Dances

During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties the Teochew society was largely agrarian. Owing to pervasive corruption and weak rule of the law, disputes over land and water resource were frequent and fierce. Accordingly, families living near  one another forged alliances to form clans so as to protect their fields from encroaching neighbours.
One of the means these clans used to mark the boundary of their territories, was to parade the idols of local guardian deities past every household belonging to their village in loud processions held in the first month of every Lunar New Year. Some communes even went so far as to choreograph outdoor dances performed by their most energetic young men, as overt displays of strength. 
While different districts came to create their own dance expressions, many of these dances share the common feature of being associated with real or mythical animals that symbolise might and power. 
Though suppressed during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, these traditional dances are now enjoying a new lease of life and even embraced by the younger generation.

Different Types of Teochew Dances 

Like people in many other parts of China, Teochews consider the dragon to be highly auspicious. Unsurprisingly many villages adopted the dragon dance as their own, and there has been different variations of the dragon dance, such as the "fire dragon", the "cloth dragon", the "straw dragon", the "dragon lanterns" and the "double dragon". 
"Double dragon“ dance put up in Sai Mung, Thenghai (澄海西門)
On the other hand, the lion dance that most Chinese are familiar with, is less common seen in the Teochew region. However, the Gek-yor (揭陽) district has its own special "White Eye-Browed Green Lion" (青狮白目眉), which appears as its name describes. Admired for its vigour and poise, the Green Lion has become accepted as the King of the Beast for all Teochews.
 A Green Lion performance by a local troupe in Gek-yor
The Cloth-Horse Dance (布馬舞), also called Bamboo-Horse Dance (竹馬舞) from the Jaopeng district (饒平) celebrates the achievements of Song dynasty patriot Wen Tianxiang (文天祥). It is said to have at least 700 years of history.

Cloth-Horse Dance performed in front of the Historical Teochew City-Gate 

Besides these, there are some dances that may seem queer to outsiders, but are well-endeared to the locals. They include:
The "Nine Crocodile Dance" from Huilai (惠來九鱷舞)
(Image credit: 惠来影像)


The Thenghai Sai Mung Village Centipede Dance (澄海西門蜈蚣舞)

The Thenghai Kirin Dance (澄海麒麟舞)

and the Thenghai Double Fighting Geese (澄海雙咬鵝舞)


One Dance That Rules Them All 

Due to the historical background by which each of these dance came about, their performances are limited to specific localities. However there is one exception - Eng Go Bhu (英歌舞) that is popular across  Pholeng (普寧), Teo-yor (潮陽) and Huilai (惠来) counties, as well as the latter's adjacent Log Hong (陆丰) district outside Teochew.

Performed by collective groups in set numbers of 16, 36, 72 or 108, this dance involves the clapping of short-sticks in hand and movement of feet according to rhythm to create different formations. Tempo varies the version of the dance, from slow, medium to fast. The Teochew big drum is sometimes beaten in the background to add to the effect.

Not least because of the fascinating energetic and coordinated movements of its participants, the Eng Go Bhu is also a sight to behold as its dancers all have painted faces and are dressed according to the 108 heroic renegades found in the classic Chinese novel Water Margin (水滸傳). The leader of dance plays the enigmatic character Shi Qian  (時遷) and he holds a cloth-snake - the snake being historical the totem of the people in the Teochew and Fujian regions.

The Eng Go Bhu apparently re-enacts a scene in the Water Margin (攻打大名府), where its main characters banded together to attack an government office in Beijing. A documentary produced by China's CCTV several years ago observed that the Eng Go Bhu formations are in fact the tactical formations used by armies in the past and the movement of the sticks mimic how farm tools are held when used as weapons. It further asserted that the Eng Go Bhu was created about 300 years ago, by leaders of the clandestine anti-Qing Heaven and Earth Society (also known as the triad) as a means to secretly train their recruits in martial arts and fighting. 

Even if this is true, the Eng Go Bhu has today become a cultural representation of the Teochew people's commune spirit. Knowledge of the dance is now being passed down in villages from fathers to sons, as well as daughters. In recent years it has also been performed overseas in places where Teochew communities thrive, to rapturous cheers, and it is not difficult to see why.

Eng Go Bhu performance as part of public celebrations in a town in Teo-yor 

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