Why the show born with Michael Flatley's puffy shirts and leather trousers means so much to China

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

IN INNER MONGOLIA in 2006 I interviewed the headman of a village of nomadic herders who had been forced off their traditional grazing lands by environmental change

. He asked my translator where I came from and, when told it was Ireland, went over to a map of the world on the wall of his small cabin. He pointed confidently to our little island, beamed at me and said, “Roy Keane! Riverdance!” That he knew the Manchester United captain was no surprise: Premier League football is ubiquitous in China. His enthusiasm for the phenomenon that was born with Michael Flatley’s puffy shirts and leather trousers was less expected. But he had a satellite dish and had seen a clip of the show when it first visited China, in 2003.

A dose of Riverdance is now compulsory for visiting heads of major states, and its appearance in the programme for the visit to Ireland last weekend of Xi Jinping, China’s vice-president, is about as surprising as the appearance of Santa Claus at Christmas. But there is every reason to believe that China’s next leader was entirely sincere when he declared the performance “breathtaking”. The show’s long reign in the West may be winding down, but in China the appetite for Riverdanceseems insatiable.

After extensive national tours over the past two years it begins, next December, a 21-city circuit that goes far beyond Beijing and Shanghai and into the “deep China” of places like Yantai, Taizhou and even Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia.

At one level the attraction is obvious. Riverdanceis a vibrant spectacle. It transcends the language barrier. It is politically inoffensive and is thus given something close to official blessing. It gives a taste of a number of western cultures without demanding very deep engagement with any of them. It may even be that the show’s mass choreography and visual storytelling connect with memories (often oddly nostalgic) of Maoist operas.

But something else is going on. Chinese people seem to find Riverdancenot just spectacular but genuinely moving. In 2001, when an excerpt from the show was performed for the first time for a high-level Chinese delegation to Ireland, the minister of culture Sun Jiazheng was so overcome that, as he wrote to the producers, “a poem flowed out from the deep of his heart”.

Sun’s poem (in a translation that may or may not do it justice) includes the lines “Tinkling like the gentle spring, / Roaring like the fierce thunderstorm, / The vehemence comes with heavy grief, / But never caught in despair and petty gloom.”

The idea of grief is striking. To an Irish viewer it seems obvious that Riverdance (as any commercial blockbuster must) skates very lightly over the grief at the heart of the Irish experience of mass migration. It is an evident product of the boom years, when involuntary emigration could be framed as a happily concluded story. In the narrative of the show, indeed, emigration is fully embraced as the energy through which Irish culture (and by extension Ireland itself) is enriched and renewed. Whatever pain is endured along the way is battered away by those pounding feet.

But the Chinese seem to read that grief back into Riverdance. I suspect that one of the reasons the show means so much to them is that it enacts an epic sense of history. It unfolds over what French historians call the longue durée, the time scale not of individual events but of slowly evolving cultures. Maoism proposed to deliver a short, sharp shock, a once-and-for-all transformation that would redefine everything in a matter of decades. But the Chinese are all too aware that things don’t happen like that.

The sense of long endurance and perseverance is much more powerful now than the notion of immediate change. And what has been endured by most Chinese people over that very long stretch of time is deeply sorrowful. A Broadway show might be every bit as spectacular as Riverdance, but it can’t deliver that connection with the Chinese sense of time. The simple image of the river rolling endlessly onwards is an obvious metaphor for history in a country shaped, psychologically as well as geographically, by its great rivers, especially the Yangtze and the Yellow. That is also the central metaphor of the show.

Oddly, given the unfathomable disparity of scale, the Chinese identify with Ireland in a way that might seem utterly implausible to us. Given that the population of the island as a whole would hardly constitute a single respectable Chinese city, it seems incomprehensible that Riverdanceevokes what Sun, in that same poem, calls “the striving soul of a great nation”.

But the Chinese, even while they know themselves to be at the centre of the universe, also think of themselves as in some sense a small nation – one that has been bullied and humiliated by more powerful countries. They see in Riverdancea moral tale of an oppressed “great nation” enduring long enough to come into its own – a message with obvious resonance.

The other great attraction of the show is its upbeat take on tradition and globalisation. Chinese traditional culture was devastated by the Cultural Revolution. (One of the most moving things I saw in China was a concert by musicians in their 80s who had come out of prison camps and reclaimed the old musical instruments they had hidden before they were arrested.) It has been rehabilitated only to face the new challenge of the influx of western culture. Riverdance, with its narrative of the survival of a tradition across the millennia, applies a soothing balm to this anxiety about the fragility of Chinese traditions.

There are, of course, heavy ironies in all of this, not least in relation to Tibet, to which many of the same thoughts about the endurance of small cultures could be applied. A Chinese culture that was more open to its own internal energies might not need to see so much in a foreign show. But there is a fascination in this age of cultural homogeneity with the emergence of a Chinese Riverdance, one that is very different from the original. Perhaps in the future Riverdancewill survive only as a Chinese phenomenon, still touring long after its connections to an imagined Ireland have been broken.