Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and Social Movement in Taiwan

by Baiqi Chen

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Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) is a modern dance group based in Taiwan founded by choreographer Lin Hwai-min in 1973. It was the first modern dance theatre under the ruling of an oppressive government and a society that barely appreciates any kinds of art. “Cloud Gate Dance Theatre was born in a time that no one believed in art, and no one believed this sort of high dance or modern dance would have any chance to take root in Taiwan. There was no such connection between modern art or modern dance and the daily lives of common people.” (Yang Zhao, 1998) However, Cloud Gate became one of the most successful and renowned art institutions in Asia. The founder Lin Hwai-min once said he did not expect his dance group would survive until today. His idea of founding the group was only to advocate “composed by Chinese, choreographed by Chinese, and Chinese dance for Chinese.” (Lin, 1989) To a certain extent, this nationalistic intention not only brought Cloud Gate to the stage of the world, but also the has become the key reason that has helped the theatre to modify itself based on the changing society in the past 43 years.

         This short essay will briefly introduce how Cloud Gate was born, survived under the Taiwan Social Movement and eventually became its own social movement. From a cultural sociology point of view, I am wondering how an artist and an art organization express their understandings and respond to the society under a particular social structure. To me, Cloud Gate is not only a successful model of a modern art organization, but also a great example for answering how could modern dance possible at that moment. It is not only an attempt to highlight some specific operating rules of art and culture, but also to show how the art and cultural field negotiate with political, social and economic processes in different fields of dialogue and consultation.

Before The Social Movement

         The emergence of Cloud Gate was highly related to the social political phenomenon in 1970s Taiwan. Modern dance as an exotic, emerging and form of art with the connotation of self-expression and self-assertion, did not achieve its cultural legitimacy under the oppressive control of the KMT government in the 1960s. It was interpreted as a bizarre and undesirable form of art which was not considered as an ordinary entertainment experience for the public. The turning point came with the establishment of the Cold War structure, the US government started to export all kinds of art including modern dance to Third World Countries in order to promote the national power and as a way of consolidating allies. In 1954, the KMT government found the “Emergency Fund of International Affairs” and this fund brought some international dance groups such as José Limón Theatre and Paul Taylor Ballet Group to the public of Taiwan. Lin Hwai-min was inspired by these performances. Modern dance became a high art form recognized by the country. At the same time, some great dancers and choreographers came back from Japan and the US to Taiwan and brought some performances and classes with them which cultivated dancers like Lin Hwai-min and opened the next stage of modern dance in their homeland.

         Lin Hwai-min grew up in a politician’s family. His father was one of the members in the cabinet of the KMT government. His family played an important role in his early career by providing social and political resource and political protection. Lin was influenced by a lot of his friends from the left wing. One example is the writer Chen Yingzhen, who conveyed his socialist feelings and compassion for people through literature and criticism of capitalism which affected Lin’s perceptions of the society and his later creations. Lin was also learned a lot from the Baodiao Movement. Lin took an active part in the protest demonstrations when he was studying in the U.S. Thus we can easily relate Lin and Cloud Gate to the political movement. Just as Lin said,  “Composed by Chinese, Choreographed by Chinese and Chinese dance for Chinese.” was another announcement of the Baodiao Movement in another field. (Lin, 1989) Lin Hwai-min was making use of the conflicts and stress in the field of politics to respond and further create his art and direct his actions.

Part of The Social Movement

         In 1975, Cloud Gate’s performances were shown in Hong Kong and Singapore. It was the first time that Taiwan exported its culture to another place in the world. And in 1979, one year after breaking off between The U.S. and mainland China, it went to America and performed over 40 times in 8 weeks. Cloud Gate became a national icon of Taiwan. Meanwhile, intelligentsias like Chen Yingzhen stated to occupy the high art field because of the heavily monitored political situations. Different from the values the government was propagandizing, they highly advocated terms like “motherland” “folk” and “tradition.” Under these circumstances, Lin became an activist of the movement by collecting folk musics, dramas, and religious rites, and sharing ideas and concepts with other culture movements and organizations. Cloud Gate became a “local” and “realistic” modern dance group rather than a “Chinese” dance organization. Right at this moment, the performances of Cloud Gate were supported by the government but at the same time it was recognized by some intelligentsias and the public. It was no longer a performance, but also a part of the cultural political movement.

         The social movement in the 1970s Taiwan was not only in the political field but was also influenced by Taiwan’s economic development and its changing culture. In 1973, the GDP per person of Taiwan was 648 U.S. dollars and this number reached 6,000 in 1988. This steep development and the emergence of middle class gave art organizations a great opportunity to expand. However, since the government generally untied its social and economic control, the society started to feel anxious because of the uncertainty of the changing world. This was the second turning point of Cloud Gate to figure out how to confront new challenges.

         Using the Peking opera organization Ya Yin Xiao Ji (雅音小集), I will explain how Cloud Gate different from other organizations at the moment. Ya Yin was founded by Kuo Shiao Chuang in 1979. It was successful in the early 80s and later generally unheard of. It shares lots of similarities with Cloud Gate. Ya Yin was also trying to modernize a traditional art form in order to adapt the changing environment. By performing in public in hundreds of theatres all over Taiwan, Ya Yin was recognized by their audiences and some authorities from the Western countries. However, it did/could not modify their shows based on local issues due to its adherence to traditional values. Going to the theatre to watch the Peking opera was a stylish act rather than being aware of a specific social issue. More importantly, Lin Hwai-min attended to the social discussion by collecting social networks and cultural materials and creating new shows. Ya Yin was keeping with the past and advocating Confucius culture, such as loyalty and filial piety, which could not response well to the new phenomenon of Taiwan thus it lost its resonance and attraction. In a word, Lin’s new creations not only solved his own puzzles, but also spoke for people under the social pressures. Cloud Gate became an important part of the social movement and finally earned more and more resonances and support outside of the stage.

Its Own Social Movement

         Cloud Gate has changed Taiwan by educating citizens over the past 43 years. In the late 1970s, students in Taiwan shifted the center of the movement from cities to rural places. Since 1980, after the performing tour in the U.S., Lin Hwai-min lead his group in visiting rural places, schools, and communities all over Taiwan (he founded Cloud Gate II in 1998 which basically focused on these groups of audiences). This was a key step for Cloud Gate to change people’s lives until today. Every time they went to a new place to do a performance, they would form a volunteer team which normally consisted of over hundred people. Some of them became tutors of new volunteers and eventually these groups of people became a power that can not be neglected. Over 40 years, Cloud Gate has trained millions of volunteers in Taiwan and has established a volunteer culture that shapes people’s personalities and the way they act. In the Sunflower protest, people were highly self-organized. They spontaneously separated into groups and sat together. Volunteers gathered in one place from different areas of the city and brought food, drink, and medicine to the students.

         In terms of education, Cloud Gate also changed dance academically. In the 1980s, Lin Hwai-min was invited by the government to set up a Dancing Department in the National Art Academy. Since 1983, Lin tried to bring his experiences of teaching and training to the Academy. The Academy shared the same culture, value and ways of practice with Cloud Gate. “Dancer” became a profession and more and more parents allowed and even encouraged their children to learn and practice.

         Last but not least, Cloud Gate has changed the way that people appreciate art. In the 1970s, what was good art was relatively easy to define. At that time, traditional art forms dominated and no body cared about modern art. Later when Taiwan politically and culturally allied with the US, high art became the best no matter to what extent people can understand and appreciate. Since the 1990s, Cloud Gate started its path of globalization. In addition to a continuing focus on Taiwan’s political, social and cultural issues and elements, Lin began to incorporate an Asian aesthetic in his works. He tried to expand and diversify dancers’ aesthetic experiences and interpretations by using a cross-cultural collage in the work. “Nine Songs” (九歌), for instance, was making use of aboriginal music, Tibetan music, and Indian flute. This kind of work provides different art experiences for different audiences and finally increases the ability of appreciation of the general public.

         Although Lin Hwai-min is almost retired from Cloud Gate and left the group to his peers and students, the organization continues to be a social movement in Taiwan. The conversations between Cloud Gates and the Taiwan society are continuing.



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  • by Baiqi Chen

    BAIQI CHEN is a curator and an urban farm owner. He aims to create connections between interdisciplinary arts and their audiences, in order to bring personal and social impacts and generate culture that moves people. With a marketing and economy academic background and working experiences, Baiqi has led and worked on projects in China and Hong Kong. His studies include research of contemporary curators working in Chicago and globally.