As the face of Shen Yun Performing Arts’ poster for the past two years, Hsiao-Hung Lin still seems unaware of her stardom. “That’s just a photo,” she says. “I’m not like that in daily life.” She laughs.
Leaps and bounds
Born in Taiwan, the youngest child, with an older brother and two older sisters, Lin started to learn dance at the age of 11. “I remember I often quarreled with my sisters when I was young,” says Shen Yun’s leading lady. “It’s probably because we were too noisy; I was then sent to learn dance.”
After learning some basic skills of ballet, Lin wanted to take the next leap in dance at age 14. “I had seen the performance of Shen Yun Performing Arts in Taiwan,” she says. “I wanted to be like them, but there was no place teaching professional classical Chinese dance in Taiwan. I knew Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York teaches it. So I gave it a try.”
After passing the academy entrance exam, Lin set off to study abroad by herself, and despite her young age, she wasn’t worried about being homesick. “There were a lot of people at home, so I felt pretty good to leave home at that time,” she says. “Maybe my response was somewhat slow. After staying in New York for three years, I seemed to suddenly realize that I was abroad all by myself.”
Her optimism and carefree personality helped her adapt to the new environment more easily than other students. However, the arduous professional dance training and busy schedule of the world tour took her focus away from any difficulties, such as the language barrier and different eating habits. “Once you pursue a professional dancing career, it’s not something playful anymore,” she says. “Dancing is different from singing. If a person is talented in singing with a particularly good voice, they can sing well even if they don’t practice much. But it’s not the case for dance. Even if you are talented, you have to practice diligently. If you don’t practice, you simply can’t do the technique. You can’t do it well.” Lin’s physical strength was good for dance, she said, but she wasn’t flexible enough. She often regrets that she didn’t practice more when she was little. “If I stretched my legs more then, I wouldn’t need to work so hard later.”
Now a veteran, Lin explains that she’s fortunate to be able to share her experiences with the junior dancers.
“I’ve performed about 900 performances in the eight years since 2008 when I joined the world tour of Shen Yun Performing Arts — it’s even hard for me to believe sometimes,” she says. “I was the youngest child at home, so I didn’t know how to take care of myself. But now I’m not only independent, I also have to take care of others.”
After only one year away from home, when she first returned to Taiwan, her parents almost didn’t recognize her at the airport. “I looked completely different,” Lin says. “I was really much more mature than before.”
Sea of change
Growing up in Taiwan, Lin was raised amidst traditional Chinese culture, so learning “bearing” — the unique element of classical Chinese dance where all expression initiates first from the spirit — came naturally to her. “Our teacher often told us that imagination is very important for dancing,” she says. “When you dance, you have to imagine the scenes of the dance piece. The feeling of seeing a mountain is different from that of seeing the sea. Different feelings will make different movements. Classical Chinese dance is dancing from the heart, so what you feel is very important.”
Lin’s gold medal performance at the 2012 Junior International Classical Chinese Dance Competition called By the Waterside illustrates her sentiment. The piece is choreographed from “The Reeds” in Classic of Poetry:
The reeds are luxuriant,
The white dew is turned to frost;
The one in my heart,
Is somewhere by the waterside.
“I read the poem first and then imagined myself in the scene: I was at the beautiful waterside, breathing the fresh air,” the star says. “I had to express the feelings of gently touching over the surface of water with the fan in my hand. I had to try hard to fathom and find the feelings. If I just listen to others’ interpretation, it’s not mine. Then I can’t express the authentic feelings in my dance.” Two years later, she won gold again, this time in the adult division of the same competition. But she was surprised when she was favoured by the judges. “I still felt stressful after winning the prizes — I felt I had to do better in the future,” she says. “My preparation for the competition was a natural process. I just kept practicing, finding problems and correcting them every day, and honed my skill for the dance piece, step by step. Actually, that’s dance — you have to work hard all the time. At last, it’s just a natural presentation on the stage.”
Not only did she bring home gold, the two competitions provided Lin with a deeper understanding of classical Chinese dance. “What I felt improved was mainly coherence,” she says. “The most difficult part for dance is the connections between different movements, and it’s especially important for classical Chinese dance. We often say: the beauty is in the process. Individual movements and combinations are similar. The difference lies in the connection of two movements. When dancers express the subtle feelings from one movement to another, you can really feel rich connotation inside it.”
When all the internal and external components of dance work together, the experience is powerful, for Lin and the audience. During Shen Yun’s 2014 tour, she played a little girl in a program called The Steadfast Lotus, a story about the persecution of the meditation group Falun Dafa in China.
“The girl was left alone because her parents were arrested for practicing Falun Dafa,” she says. “I was born in Taiwan and did not personally experience such brutal persecution, so I searched many photos and stories on the Internet to help myself imagine if I were a child, how I would feel losing my parents and how I would make myself strong and sturdy again.”
Her research and training paid off, leaving a lasting impression on everyone watching. “I remember when I danced the piece, I shed tears for eight out of the ten performances. The audience members might not be able to see my tears, but I could see them wiping their eyes from the stage. I knew they were really moved.”
A single intention
Looking back at her dance career of so many years, Lin feels deep gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of such a unique company as Shen Yun. “Our environment is very simple,” she says. “Everyone has just one common goal: reviving authentic traditional Chinese culture. With this aim, teachers teach us wholeheartedly. They hope we can learn everything. We have very few conflicts between classmates, so we can focus all our efforts on dance. In other places, people might waste a lot of energy dealing with interpersonal relationships.”
It seems as though they aren’t just preserving a traditional art form, they’re practicing it too.
“I’ve read many articles and poems from ancient Chinese people, such as Su Shi, Du Fu,” Lin says. “I found that many of them have been demoted because they gave straightforward, truthful advice to the emperors. But when they suffered personally, they still just wrote about their worries for the common people and the emperor being cheated by treacherous court officials. In short, they never thought about themselves. Since we’re promoting traditional Chinese culture, we should first have these qualities ourselves.” A seriousness overcame Lin’s typical light demeanor as she discussed Shen Yun’s mission to revive 5,000 years of divinely inspired Chinese culture.
“China had been such a good country with such a splendid culture,” she says. “It was a country of etiquettes. But all these were destroyed under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party through many movements such as the Great Cultural Revolution. The modern-day Chinese people don’t know what their own ancestors were like, and people in other countries know even less. Isn’t it sad? Whenever I think about it, I feel my responsibility is great.”
Every year, Shen Yun produces a new program, planning and preparing for six months, then touring the second half of the year, for 100 performances.
“Sometimes it’s really a test,” Lin says. “It’s not performing for one or 10 performances but about 100. I have felt tremendous pain some time. However, I seemed to let go of it all of a sudden last year. I thought the key point for doing one thing is the process. It’s always about 100 performances that I have to perform whether I’m happy or unhappy, so why don’t I make myself happy? I think what I do is such a meaningful job. I’m actually quite lucky.”
Lin told us that Shen Yun has toured almost every part of the world since its inception 10 years ago. “We’ve even performed in some small cities in the U.S.,” she says. “The local people probably hadn’t seen so many Chinese people in their whole lives, nor know anything about classical Chinese dance.”
Lin thinks that every Chinese person can be proud of Shen Yun. “I think Shen Yun is opening up a new market for Chinese culture around the whole world,” she says. “It’s a pioneer reviving traditional Chinese culture. When I go back to Taiwan, I always tell my relatives and friends that the target audience of Shen Yun is all countries and all ethnic groups around the world. The live orchestra blends both Eastern and Western instruments in a performance that extracts the essence of art from all of mankind, accentuating traditional Chinese culture. We are really one-of-a-kind.”
Chinese Text by Cherry Chen English Text by David Lee Produced by Echo Li