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Square dance controversy prompts cultural reflection
Author :  SUN LAIBIN, HU QIANQIAN Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2017-03-06
Dancers perform a square dance in Beijing on Nov. 7, 2016. A total of 50,085 people in 14 cities across China, including Beijing, Tianjin and Jinan, danced at the same time, setting a Guinness World Record for multiple-site large-scale dancing.
At present, China is undergoing a complex, drastic social transformation, and square dancing—a form of Chinese dancing in public squares—is suddenly drawing attention at home and abroad.
Chinese scholars have attempted to explain the popularity of square dancing from a variety of perspectives, including economic progress, national characteristics, women’s emancipation, spiritual fulfillment, mass participation and limited choice.
In the meantime, Western scholars often analyze the matter from a political or social psychological point of view, arguing for the government’s influence and regulation to respond to the needs of the public as the number of enthusiastic dancers continue to grow.
Mirror of society
Any social phenomenon is born out of a series of complicated and interacting factors. Square dancing is no exception.
The popularity of square dancing can be first attributed to the tremendous progress China has made in socioeconomic development. Square dancing has gained its footing as a mass culture against the backdrop of a growing economy grows and rising living standards.
A distinctive national pastime, square dancing embodies Chinese people’s changing way of life and social interaction. The traditional Chinese family structure has disappeared while the core family model has become the norm, resulting in a larger elderly population who are healthy, burden-free and desire to go outdoors to seek leisure in the communities after retirement. Square dancing is a good option.
Needless to say, square dancing represents the collective aspect of Chinese culture. Collectivism has a long tradition in China, and many people tend to strive for a sense of belonging in group activities.
Also, the low-cost pastime is a natural favorite among many Chinese, who value the habit of diligence and frugality.
Finally, the popularity of square dancing reflects the growing national spirit. In fact, most square dancers are damas, meaning “elderly women.” Their enthusiastic engagement in square dances shows that women in our country are independent and confident in today’s China.
Compared to other forms of entertainment, dancing in the squares is beneficial to physical and mental health while it also promotes harmonious relationships between the participants. It is safe to say that the development and prosperity of popular culture represented by square dances accurately displays the forward-looking spirit of the Chinese in the present time.
While square dancing thrives on the basis of China’s social progress, economic development and rising living standards, it also exposes multiple cultural, moral and ethical issues as Chinese society undergoes transformation. In a certain sense, disputes caused by square dancing show that public’s needs have evolved from the pursuit of survival to a desire for an enjoyable life, while the cultural confusion it triggers, in essence, embodies the value conflicts among different social groups.
Simmering disputes between enthusiastic damas and their irritated neighbors have occasionally made headlines, leading to a discussion on rights. To better solve the disputes concerning the location and noise issues, we must figure out an answer to the question: whose rights and interests should be put first?
There are also quarrels over the morality of square dancers and their neighbors, who have sometimes thrown coins, rocks and, at times, even feces at the group in a bid to make them stop. Some say the elderly participants blast their music until late at night, disrespecting others and disturbing the peace. Others argue that square dancers are simply looking for entertainment and they are completely oblivious to the moral issues raised.
On the other hand, residents who attack square dancers are blatant offenders. Their behavior is illegal and hard to justify. As a result, some assert that the conflict of morality reveals the chaos of the social moral order in a modern society. The conflicts are not new, because they reflect the proper handling of personal and social relationships as well as setting boundaries, pointing to the absence of a new social ethic.
Square dances have also unleashed a round of heated discussion on the moves—whether tasteful and upbeat or vulgar and ugly. Apparently, different stakeholders find it almost impossible to agree with each other.
The disputes, in the end, have stirred a public management debate, with officials pondering whether to intervene or adopt a laissez faire policy. Some say that square dancing is a spontaneous entertainment activity, so it should not fall within the government’s regulation. Others hold the view that square dancing is a form of entertainment that attracts too huge of a crowd, and so it should be reined in.
To delve into the matter, in general, it is meaningful to enhance our cultural awareness and promote the development of square dancing in the spirit of pursuing cultural progress.
The rights dispute exposes the subjective dilemma in the current stage of sociocultural transformation. Different groups divided by income, occupation and age compose the subjects of the conflict in square dancing who value different criteria in their leisure time, with high-income residents emphasizing comfort and privacy, while low-income groups seek affordable public activities and venues.
In addition, one or two hours before breakfast and after dinner is the prime time for retired and middle-aged people to dance in the squares. However, at the same period of time, working people and children need to get ready for work or school. The former is used to noise, but the latter desires quiet, making conflict inevitable.
The moral dispute exposes the the absence of moral and ethical standards suitable to socialism with Chinese characteristics. Different groups act on their own versions of morality, pointing to the lack of a common code of ethics.
The dancing moves dispute reflects the conflicts in aesthetics among groups of different age, educational level and life experience.
The management dispute shows the unbalanced development of urbanization and cultural aspects. As urbanization speeds up, population density increases drastically, squeezing the public space for entertainment and leisure reserved for the cultural function of cities.
Unfortunately, square dancing requires loud music because of the massive participation, grand location and other noisy disturbances nearby. Therefore, its intrusion into the local neighborhood has to rely on the improvement of urban governance to thoroughly resolve the matter.
Going forward, the development of square dances, as a mass culture with a solid audience base, is bound to adhere to the principle of meeting the demand of the participants and creating a harmonious community environment at the same time. That is to say, the activity should apply cultural awareness to examine the pros and cons of itself while confidently promoting its popularity and influence in a healthy manner, to ensure to the organic integration of cultural awareness, confidence, and strength.
Simply put, tolerance, appreciation and encouragement appear to be the rational choice to deal with the unique “Chinese scenery.”
Again, reaching a value consensus remains essential to easing the tension square dancing has created. We need to foster a civilized and harmonious environment that respects everyone’s freedom and treats others with kindness in order to significantly reduce conflicts and improve cultural tastes.
Finally, the government should strengthen the construction of public facilities and improve public cultural services to promote the sustainable and high-standard development of square dancing.
Sun Laibin and Hu Qianqian are from Wuhan University.