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

Dance Studies East and West: BDA Anniversary 2015

Alexandra Kolb presents at the Beijing Dance Academy Dance Studies Forum, 2015. Photo: Beijing Dance Academy

By Alexandra Kolb, Middlesex University, London

Four days of intensive discussions, seminars and evening dance performances marked the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Beijing Dance Academy’s Department of Dance Studies. The event kicked off early on Monday 17 November with an address by the President of the BDA, Guo Lei, which was followed by a two-day conference and two-and-a half days’ teaching by international dance academics. Alongside members of the Beijing Dance Academy and the visiting academics (including us London lecturers and our collaborative partners from the Taipei National University of the Arts), a handful of scholars from other Chinese universities contributed to the proceedings.

The first two days were filled with panels of short (10-minute) presentations on a range of topics, dedicated to the development of Dance Studies as a discipline (Day 1) and Chinese Minzu dance (Day 2), with Q&A sessions wrapping up each panel. The first day explored how Dance Studies has evolved as a subject in its own right and produced a body of theory to complement the practice of dance. Discussions throughout the day allowed for interesting insights into the ways in which dance is taught in China – and at the BDA in particular – as well as useful comparisons between tertiary-level dance pedagogy in China and the UK.  One topic that stood out to me, and was raised several times throughout the conference, was the relevance of dance and its theoretical study to the wider Chinese public. How can this be achieved?

In Western academia, there are several ways in which greater societal impact has been promoted. For instance, funding bodies such as the British AHRC require scholars to demonstrate that their research or practice has impact on broader sections of the population, for instance through the dissemination of findings in publicly-accessible museums or performance workshops. In New Zealand – where I previously worked – academics were expected not only to achieve high standards of research and teaching, but also what was called ‘service to the community’: something I fulfilled by offering evening dance classes for members of the public (while others volunteered, for instance, to act as judges in local dance competitions).

In China the question is particularly significant, as dance is being forced to redefine its position in society after having lost the centrality it enjoyed within Mao’s political culture. While in some ways it is becoming a more privatized venture during a period of rapid globalization, dance still fulfills important social functions with many parks and public squares being filled with individuals busying themselves with all types of it – from traditional Chinese forms to Western-style ballroom dance. If I recall correctly, one issue that was touched on repeatedly at the conference was how to create connections between these everyday practitioners (who are normally amateurs) and professional institutions such as BDA.

Stefanie Sachsenmaier demonstrates T’ai Chi with a staff member from Beijing Dance Academy at the Dance Studies Forum, 2015. Photo: Beijing Dance Academy

The Western academics focused on dance studies as a field of enquiry in their respective countries, mostly in the Anglo-American world. My own contribution addressed issues such as the founding of the first dance programme in the United States and the variation in the discipline between countries, while Vida Midgelow examined in detail the current UK climate and in particular the notion of practice-as-research. A highlight of the day was a t’ai chi encounter between my colleague Steffi Sachsenmaier and a staff member from the BDA. I found it especially refreshing to witness the diversity of opinions among the BDA staff; some discussions were indeed quite heated and revealed significant differences of opinion, for instance over whether scholars should research choreographers affiliated with their own institutions or from further afield.

In contrast to the first conference day, the second was more concerned with actual dance practice, and incorporated intriguing samples of various Chinese dance styles, including those of the Han ethnicity, a sword dance and a fan dance performed by students. After a day of theorising, this came as a welcome contrast. Questions arising included how to perform Chinese and classical and folk dances in a 21st century context, and whether and how they should be adapted. Such issues are interesting in the context of the Western academy where folk dance exists (if at all) at the fringes of vocational training.

The last two days of our stay were dedicated to teaching 90-minute seminars to undergraduate students from the BDA. The choice of subjects were entirely up to us, and it was a challenge to select topics that first-year students who were not yet acquainted with Western theatre dance would be able to follow and benefit from. I presented a historically-oriented class on German modern dance; traversing questions of the technique, music and underlying philosophical principles of artists such as Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman. It was my particular intention to set down the important global influences of German dance, which reached to North America (through Hanya Holm), South America (through Jooss and Leeder), Europe (via Jooss student Pina Bausch and many others) – but also, vitally, to Far East Asia. It is not always recognised that the Chinese dance pioneer and BDA president from 1955, Dai Ailian, trained with Kurt Jooss in the UK; while Wu Xiaobang, another important figure in Chinese dance, received influences from German modern dance through his Japanese teacher Takaya Eguchi.

My own seminar fitted in well with two interesting contributions by Taipei academics Yunyu Wang and Ya-Ping Chen, which also addressed themes with a German focus: Yunyu’s presentation, for instance, analysed Laban’s movement principles from both theoretical and practical perspectives. Other talks, such as Martin Welton’s on the theatrical technique of repetition, testified to the sheer breadth of academic treatments of theatre and dance. They also highlighted, however, the different orientations – both in academic and aesthetic terms – of Chinese and Western scholars respectively. For instance, when Chinese students wondered why Western choreographers and theatre directors promote performances that lack technical prowess or beauty, Martin responded that on the contrary he finds works with these attributes less than inspiring. Such differences in aesthetic agendas, which have at their core the divergent trajectories of Chinese and Western dance, certainly warrant further discussion and exchange of perspectives.

Working Out a Future – Brief Thoughts on Developments of Dance Practices in China

Stefanie Sachsenmaier presents at the Beijing Dance Academy Dance Studies Forum, 2015. Photo: Beijing Dance Academy

By Dr. Stefanie Sachsenmaier, Senior Lecturer Theatre Arts, Middlesex University, London

On the occasion of the Beijing Dance Academy Department of Dance Studies’ thirtieth anniversary a conference took place entitled ‘The Development Forum of Dance Studies’ in November 2015. I was privileged to be invited to participate in the event with three further colleagues from Middlesex University, amongst them Prof. Chris Bannerman, Head of ResCen and Co-Director of ArtsCross.

Various events took place throughout the day, which were informative with regard to the status of dance as an evolving practice that is being taught as well as researched. Different institutions were represented – next to Beijing Dance Academy there were contributions by representatives from Nanjing University of the Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts, Minzu University of China and Middlesex University London.

I witnessed the second day of the conference, which featured a wide range of presentations with the particular thematic focus ‘The Chinese Minzu dance with international outlook’, organised by the Research Centre for Minzu Dance. Minzu translates as nationality or ethnic group, and there are apparently a range of traditional Chinese dance forms grouped together under the term ‘minzu wudao’ or minzu dance – often (perhaps not satisfactorily) translated as ethnic dance.

As a European I have found it fascinating to witness what I perceive to be an a forceful and ever-increasing interest in and preoccupation with questions around a particular Chinese identity in the art and dance works I have experienced when visiting China several times over the past few years. It seems that many factors are at play here, not least the rapidly changing urban landscape, living standards and other major changing social factors that make China of today a very different place to the one experienced by the previous generation. (We only need to recall widely known images showing Shanghai in the 1990s and 2010 – at the former time featuring green unused land, whereas twenty years later the same spot already boasted some of the world’s most modern skyscrapers.) It does not seem surprising that questions around identities get raised, and in this fast development I have enjoyed witnessing a simultaneous ‘looking back’ in time, a querying and what I interpret as processes of rediscovery of possible and unique roots, at this time when the country overall moves ahead at such rapid speed in terms of its development.

Within the dance world specifically it might not seem surprising that students at Beijing Dance Academy – and other dance training institutions in China as well as Taiwan – train next to classical ballet also traditional Chinese dance forms. Yet perhaps owing in great parts China’s recent history including the Cultural Revolution as well as the rapid-changing environment mentioned above, there seems to me a perceivable sense of re-engagement, rather than a steady continuation, with traditional dance practices, as part of this search for something that is uniquely ‘Chinese’. Many questions seem to be continually addressed around what these dance forms are and what their future might be.

Intriguingly, as it became apparent in some of the presentations, this re-engagement with traditional dance forms actually constitutes an active interpretative venture on behalf of dance researchers and dance educators. Many dance forms have been lost and forgotten, and much work seems to be done in trying to recreate traditional dance forms, in parts from ancient cave paintings as well as other artworks, such as painted vases. Needless to say, these static representations might only give clues as to what live dance practices may have been like and this is where such an undertaking by necessity is interpretative and inventive, yet, I wonder, is would it at any rate be important to get it ‘right’?

I picked up on questions of authenticity in relation to issues around identity that are foregrounded in such undertakings and was reminded of Jacques Derrida stating in his publication Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Derrida, 1995), that beyond the past it is the future that is given in an archive. What matters, it seems, is less what actually existed in its detail in the past, but it is instead the various current engagements and preoccupations with minzu practices and the particular evolvements these are experiencing, the statuses and meanings these are gaining and the visibility they may be attaining, that is of importance.

One of the presentations as part of the programme of events presented a pedagogic approach within minzu dance traning. Due to the prominence of ballet training in Chinese dance conservatoires, it was stated, dance teachers and students across China have been accustomed to a certain regiment in terms of training. The strengths of ballet training were highlighted in terms of the syllabi it offers, noting that these forms became highly influential in an ongoing development of minzu dance training. Dance students demonstrated a typical movement routine in class, where movements of minzu dance were practised in similar routines to those that ballet offers. Interestingly, my ArtsCross colleague from the Taipei National University of the Arts however explained to me that minzu dance is taught very differently in Taiwan – again bearing witness to the creative aspect at stake in processes of re-engagement with dance practices that may have been lost in parts, at least in official dance training institutions.

Various voices from Chinese delegates throughout the conference conveyed a passion for Chinese traditions and a perceived need to instill this passion to younger generations, so that these practices will gain more prominence again, at a time where China develops so fast that her near future can hardly be guessed or grasped. My own short contribution to the event was an attempt to question whether a narrow approach to questions around authenticity when dealing with traditional practices in an attempt to ‘recreate’ would perhaps take an important aspect of dance practice away – its ability to ever-evolve. Witnessing these sorts of processes pursued with an impressive energy and dedication was most fascinating for me to in my recent trips to China.