A Re-analysis of Yang Liping’s Iconic ‘Sign of the Peacock’ using Roland Barthes’ Theory

Yang Liping performs in her dance drama The Peacock in Nanjing, 4 July 2013. Photo: Xinhua

By Wang Xin, Beijing Dance Academy

I. Roland Barthes and Semiology

Roland Barthes has been one of the most renowned French critics since the 1960s. He conducted a highly systematic review of general cultural studies, including literature, and a systematic literary analysis of a number of specific works. Furthermore, he has also performed in-depth analyses on social and cultural matters that go well-beyond literature 1. He proposed a bi-order semiological system based on Saussure’s ideas which embraced the signifier, signified and the signifying process. He believed the plane of expression (E), and the plane of content (C), and the relation (R) of the two planes composed what he designated as the first-order ERC. Here, the union of the signifier and signified constituted an integrated sign, allowing the ERC itself to serve as an individual element of another ERC. New signs are generated in his second-order semiological system and they often appear as art signs in the sense of art. These art signs tend to hinge on the artist’s expression and they can be applied to popular art, non-language art and art that occurs on stage 2.

II. The Significance of the Second-order Semiological System in Dance Criticism

Unlike writings or images, which are obviously articulate, it would be hard to find corresponding sign representations for the more abstracted emotions in dance, a kinetic art form integrating time and space. The occasionally recognisable signifier and signified should certainly be comprehended in the context of the whole dance piece, or even in the context of a dance genre. There would be nothing comparable to an isolated comprehension of corresponding signs. Earlier, there were scholars who attempted to comprehend dance pieces in light of the signifier and signified of the first-order semiological system. They did so by deconstructing and analysing single dance movements, but this turned out to be quite superficial and rigid. Any interpretation of narration would be fundamentally flawed as dance is often intensely emotional and/or abstract and thus innately complex when it comes to interpretation. It is also particularly true in modern times where dance evolves within the context of globalisation, dance vocabulary develops from singular models to compounds and its boundaries become vague and blurred. Roland Barthes offered a more appropriate approach for interpreting dance, i.e. the second-order semiological system. Dance, more than any other art form, demands an interpretation of the second-order semiological system as it can contribute to diversified interpretations of the works by “dead authors” as well as helping us to understand contemporary dance works. Furthermore, the string of dance movements, like musical notes within any composition, should not be lost during the process of interpretation. Instead, a dance work should be treated as an intact sign. Furthermore, the works of one choreographer during a certain period should arguably be considered as an interconnected whole. To achieve the most precise interpretation possible, a macrocosmic perspective should take precedence over a microcosmic one in order to suit the characteristics of modern dance works more effectively.

雀之恋 2012 Japantimes
The Peacock by Yang Liping, Orchard Hall Shibuya, Tokyo 2014. Photo: The Japan Times
III. One Single Peacock, Two Divergent Interpretations

The iconic sign, “peacock” in China’s dance community as an example. This gesture sign and its corresponding definition as “peacock” became well known after Yang Liping’s dance drama Spirit of Peacock made its sensational debut in 1986. The simple and refreshing performance imitating the postures of a peacock left audiences with lingering memories. Since then the “Peacock Gesture” has become an established sign and every peacock-themed dance thereafter has been created using this sign. With the same sign, Yang Liping composed The Peacock in 2012. In this instance, the costumes were more developed and styling designs more elaborate, but nonetheless, the work failed to win wide recognition. I have often considered the reasons for this – therefore, I undertook an interpretation using Roland Barthes’ bi-order semiological system in order to seek the underlying causes for these two divergent peacock performances created by the same choreographer.

The former dance piece imitated the peacock and the gestures and postures of the dancers constituted the general signs of peacock in the sense of the first-order semiological system. The work, Spirit of Peacock, as a sign emerged as a great leap forward for China’s folk dance making the transition from recreation in a public space to stage art; and from the old times to the modern. It also represented a penetration from the first-order to the second-order system as each and every gesture came as a peaceful response to nature; a salute to a vivid life and an ode to universal freedom. The Eden-like serenity and profound romance therein gave rise to a desire for freedom and helped to console earthly worries.

In the mid-1980s, China witnessed a radical break in art as a whole, which was similar in some ways to the European Renaissance. This gave birth to “root tracing” “country folk” literature, and in film to the ’85 New Wave, Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987). These brought the art community back to humanity and reminded us what art was supposed to be. The movement attached importance to artistic beauty and to developing a range of aesthetic characteristics including humanism. Spirit of Peacock was created during this period and it serves as a milestone masterpiece reflecting the evolution of dance from traditional art to modern art, while retaining the humanity of the original.

It is therefore striking that the same Yang Liping, and the same peacock, wearing more elaborate costumes, disappointed people the second time around. The first-order semiological system, imitation of the gestures of peacocks, remained unchanged. Therefore, applying the second-order system may offer us the reasons for the great disparity in the reception of the two works.

Gender was one area that had undergone subtle change and while gender issues are often ignored in a solo presentation, portraying both genders on stage brings gender stereotypes and possible deviation from those stereotypes to the fore. This may also be seen in the costumes, props or movements. Close observation of the 1993 dance piece Two Trees by Yang Liping reveals that the movement and use of space of male peacocks tends to transcend those of the female. This coincides with the metaphor of “no vines entangled in trees would be found, while trees entangled in vines are to be seen everywhere”. In contrast, The Peacock incorporated a number of higher movements of female peacocks over males with the females taking the lead by initiating and developing the movements and urging on the finale of the spreading of the tail fan. This represented the power of the females and even when that power was implicit in the dance. The “spirit of peacock”, as evidenced in the 1989 work was once ethereal, has in 2012 become a “peacock king” who has turned towards the earthly life instead of turning away from it. This may be a reflection of Yang’s personal development and glory at the cost of freedom, but for us, the spirit of peacock was an icon, a source of relief and a herald of brilliant prospects. Yet, it is a power game and, whether it is won by the male or female, it remains an inconvenient fact of real world life. The same peacock has grown from an icon of freedom to a terminator of freedom, failing, both in terms of the art and in terms of the audience’s feelings.

Certainly, this could also be attributed to a larger context seen in the correlation between the development of Yang Liping’s work and the development of China’s folk dance from modern to contemporary art. The flawless splendid plumage and the surreal spread of the grand tail fan are determined by contemporary aesthetics. As Welsch (2002) noted in Undoing Aesthetics:

Modern aesthetics has been further developed so much that it’s exerting influence on the foundation of real life, like the corporeal reality resulting from new material technologies and the social reality resulting from press information delivery as well as the subject reality resulting from moral collapse led by personal designs.

In modern times, Welsch also comments, the boundary between refined art and pop art has become increasingly vague and this too marks the distance between the two works by Yan Liping.

True there still exists a boundary between refined art and pop art, which is however not an eternal chasm but ever-changing and interlaced threads, since both are subject to the restriction of the cultural context at certain periods. For instance, both are in an earnest desire for novelty.

Yang Liping’s contribution is irreplaceable in that she turned the peacock of the Dai ethnic group into a sign with national and international significance, which in the end also turned her into a sign. However, as an artist she speaks for no one else but herself, and it is ultimately left to the interpreters to provide praise or criticism. After all, Yan Liping’s courage and determination are clear from her 30 years’ of committed work to preserve her Yunnanese identity, maintain a high artistic quality and achieve some degree of commercial stability. Through this paper, utilising the analysis methodology of Roland Barthes, I hope to provide a new and distinctive perspective that allows for a deeper appreciation of Chinese dance works.


1 Quoted from the Translator’s Words, Elements of Semiology [M]. by Li Youzheng, published in Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 1988.5

2 Notes of art theory offered by Wang Yichun, Peking University, 2013.4.15


Yellow Earth (1984) Directed by Chen Kaige [Film]. China: Guangxi Film Studio
Red Sorghum (1987) Directed by Zhang Yimou [Film]. China: Xi’an Film Studio
Welsch, W, (1997) Undoing Aesthetics, translated by Lu Yang, Zhang Yanbing (2002) Shanghai Translation Publishing House
Yang, Liping (chor.) 1986, Spirit of Peacock, dance performance, first performed XXXX Second National Dance Competition, Beijing
Yang Liping (chor.) 2012, The Peacock, dance performance, first performed 24th October 2012, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing