1989 / 8月
Laura Li /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell
From "the folk dancing little beauty" to film star to her transformation into a citizen of the realm of international dance, Chiang Ching's life has spanned mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States, and has most recently settled in distant Northern Europe. Her life is like a fairy tale, but even more is it a story of persistence and a philosophy of coming to terms with herself.
After a 19-year separation, Chiang Ching, one of the first generation of Golden Horse award-winning actresses, returned to Taiwan. On coming out of the airport, she was surrounded by her old friends from filmdom. The 43-year-old could not help dancing, shouting, hugging. . . . Even after a long time, Chiang Ching's sincerity and enthusiasm infected everyone around her.
Her entry into stardom was fatefully linked to dance.
When ten years old, Chiang entered the Peking Dance Academy to study folk dancing. After graduating at 16, she went to Hong Kong. Her first job was as choreographer for a Run Run Shaw film. It was never expected that the female lead would pull out halfway through. The eyes of the studio came to rest on the adorable, big-eyed, oval-faced Chiang Ching. The film made Chiang Ching an overnight sensation.
In 1966, only 20, she won the Golden Horse award, marking the high point of her acting career. Nevertheless, "in doing seven years of film, I was cut off from dancing for seven years," she recalls. Between filming and compulsory social engagements, folk dancing was relegated to an "outside talent" and her basic skills waned.
But the applause of film audiences wasn't enough to satisfy Chiang. "Movies were just work. My real spirit was still on dancing."
Before Chiang's marriage to her film director husband broke up, she had begun work on a dancing classroom. But before the decorating was finished, she suddenly decided to "take off" and seek new vistas in the new world.
If she hadn't had a marriage crisis at that time, would Chiang have returned to dancing and be a choreographer, as she is today? Faced with this most popular of questions, Chiang responds, "As for events that have already happened, I never make 'if I hadn't. . .' speculations; but the longer I stayed in movie circles, the more intense my desire to return to dancing became. This belief never disappeared."
Chiang cannot help but admit, however, that in going to the U.S. she only had a vague idea of what she wanted. "I only wanted to begin dancing again." But she was confused about direction.
Those days were definitely hard times. Used to the life of a star, Chiang plunged into silence. But she was not, as many predicted, overwhelmed. She shut herself in her room doing leg splits and bends, bringing back her "basics" bit by bit. "At that time dancing was my only refuge. Aside from studying English, I was practicing basics. Sometimes I would suddenly discover that I hadn't said a word to another person in a month."
Her days finally reached a turning point. After two years, she staged a performance of Chinese folk dancing in Long Island. It caught the eye of a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who asked Chiang if she had any interest in teaching. Clutching her English dictionary, she accepted the post as a professor of Chinese dance.
"My year and a half at Berkeley was really helpful," notes Chiang. This assistance was due not only to stability in her life, but also because she could freely sit in on the classes of the other teachers. It was here that she first came face to face with orthodox academic modern dance.
With few rules except to "express yourself," modern dance was a tremendous conceptual change for Chiang, who had only training in Chinese folk dancing and Soviet classical ballet. "In the past, we always used 'skill' as the mark of excellence; we rarely used feeling or 'thought' to choreograph or dance. Modern dance taught me that the universe of dance is vast. You can use it to express your deepest conflicts or views toward society or events."
From her love affair with modern dance and her eight trips to New York in a year and a half, she gradually became clear about her own path--creative choreography. Though difficult, for Chiang, whose life had seen more than its share of twists and turns, this was the path which could allow her to breathe freely and help her clarify her thoughts.
Besides taking classes at the State University of New York, Chiang took every opportunity to tap the wisdom of masters of modern dance with whom she came in contact. Every moment was spent in touch with, reading about, and doing modern dance.
"Chinese style" has always been the part of Chiang's work that has received the most attention. From her first work building on poems by Wang Wei and music by Chou Wen-chung, the spirit of traditional Chinese culture has always permeated her dancing. What she studied in Peking often surfaces in the materials she chooses. At a solo performance at the Guggenheim in New York, she read aloud in Chinese. Even those who couldn't understand a word could grasp the sentiment. This "common call," transcending international boundaries, is what Chiang has most to be proud of.
"The roots of culture are the roots of creativity," she says repeatedly. She still uses Chinese folk dance motifs. "These motifs of folk dancing, in fact, have deep implications." But Chiang repeatedly emphasizes that "I don't want to dance folk dance; I choose motifs appropriate to my use, and integrate them into modern dance, giving them a new spirit."
Besides Chinese culture, understanding of life itself is a source of creativity. "Similar things can produce extremely different viewpoints. One's personal experience and feelings, as well as changes in the external environment, always affect our attitudes toward matters. 'Expression' just contrives to reflect the multifacedness of these things." Consequently Chiang does transformations in angle with similar dance steps, using straight forward, 45 degrees, straight up, straight back, as the main lines. But only a small part of the audience can recognize the technique.
Chiang gets mixed reviews from critics. Hsu Po-yun, director of New Image, believes that "the dancing is 'cold,' but has adequate depth." Tao Fu-lan, a lecturer of dance at the National Institute of the Arts, points out that "the symbolism is too simple, and her gestures are flat, and the strength and feeling of fluidity are not adequate." The reaction of most ordinary viewers is, "incomprehensible," or "How can it be dancing? There's no leaping or pirouettes or other highly difficult techniques!"
Chiang cannot help but be disappointed with such critiques, but she maintains her views. "My dancing stresses the explication of a concept. If people can explore from the overall structure of an evening, perhaps they won't be as likely to 'miss the forest for the trees.'" For her, the process is more important than the final product. While some believe she is better at and should stay with folk dance, Chiang believes she should be "true to oneself," and choose the techniques she likes to develop herself.
Since the disbanding of her troupe in 1985, she has focused on choreography, solo performing, and art direction. In 1987 she toured mainland China and did the first ever modern dance performance in Tibet. She choreographed a Puccini opera for the Metropolitan Opera House. During this year's arts' season in Hong Kong, a Hong Kong troupe performed one of her works. She will soon choreograph two dramas in England and Sweden.
In her heart, Chiang Ching has a warm home in distant Sweden. The master of this house, the Swedish blood specialist Birger Blomback gives her space to develop freely and is also a friend and teacher. Her four-and-a-half-year-old son is her greatest pride and joy. Marriage, having a child, and giving up performing opportunities to be at home are seen as major sacrifices in the Western art world, where "self-realization" is stressed.
Chiang has her own view: "I've never thought dancing was my entire life." At home, Chiang likes to cook, do practical carvings, and teach her child to read Chinese. When going out to perform, she takes time to check out the local area to understand its society and customs.
Looking back on the road Chiang Ching has traveled, thinking that she has maintained her ideals and yet embraced a real life that comes to terms with herself, what does it matter if there are a few people who can't understand her dances?
Chiang Ching's dancing reveals a Sinic flavor and intuition.
(photo courtesy of Chiang Ching)
This beautiful face, which has been through hard training and a wave of popularity in Taiwan and Hong Kong, is tempered with wisdom and tact. (photo courtesy of Chiang Ching)
Chiang Ching at home is a person at peace with herself. The photo is of Chiang Ching's New York residence. (photo courtesy of Chiang Ching)