Cultural significance of dance in China explored in new U-M Library collection
Dance has been an important aspect of Chinese life since ancient times. A new collection at the University of Michigan Library provides a unique resource for the study of Chinese dance and its integral and shifting role in Chinese history, culture and politics.
Among the collection’s highlights is the “Pioneers of Chinese Dance Digital Archive,” a collection of more than 1,500 photographs from the private holdings of Chinese dancers whose careers spanned the 1930s through the 2000s and who had a major impact on the history of Chinese dance.
The digital images were collected by Emily Wilcox, a U-M assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures who specializes in Chinese dance and performance, in the course of her research.
In fact, the idea for a collection centered around Chinese dance was born in a 2013 lunch meeting between Wilcox and Chinese Studies Librarian Liangyu Fu, at the time both newcomers to the university. Fu saw the opportunity to create a unique specialty area within the Asia Library’s already very strong Chinese studies collection. Wilcox welcomed the establishment of a permanent home for the materials she had collected over 10 years of research in the field, which also include audiotapes of oral histories from more than 300 hours of conversations with leading dancers and choreographers.
“This generation of artists is aging, so it was urgent to capture their stories,” Wilcox said.
The oldest dancer she interviewed was over 90 years old, but could still vividly recall dancing during the Second World War, when performances would be interrupted by Japanese bombs.
In addition to Wilcox’s materials, Fu acquired a range of resources that address the topic of Chinese dance from ancient times to the present, with a special focus on rare and unique materials from the early 20th century to the present.
The burgeoning collection was hugely enriched in 2016 by the acquisition of a trove of materials belonging to the late Chinese-American dancer, choreographer and professor Audrey Moo Hing Jung. Given to the library by her widower, Kenneth Stepman, Jung’s collection includes notebooks, diaries, slides, and films—97 Super 8mm reels—from her extended visit to China in 1975. This rich, multimedia collection offers a rare view into professional and street dance as well as the surrounding culture and society of that moment.
“The library has a long tradition of building special and unique collections in tandem with faculty and their research interests,” said Bryan Skib, associate university librarian for collections. “These collections draw faculty and visiting scholars to Michigan, and also create discovery opportunities for the entire university community and beyond.”
Skib says the library plans to digitize Jung’s collection and Wilcox’s audiotaped interviews.
The collection has already sparked interest from scholars around the globe, some of whom attended a recent conference, “Dancing East Asia: Critical Choreographies and their Corporeal Politics,” organized by Wilcox. The accompanying exhibition, “Chinese Dance: National Movements in a Revolutionary Age (1945-1965),” features materials from the collection.