The journey of Yingge dance: from China to Thailand and back again
Published: Dec 06, 2023 12:13 AM
Photos: Courtesy of Deng Yao

Photos: Courtesy of Deng Yao

On December 7, a cultural exchange delegation from Thailand that practices Yingge, a traditional folk dance from China, will visit the Chaoshan region in South China's Guangdong Province, the cradle of Yingge. A century ago, Yingge was introduced to Thailand by Chinese migrants and it flourished there, spreading to more than 10 provinces. Now, exponents of the dance in Thailand are making trips to China with the support of both governments.

Wei Xiuqian, principal of Wenyi Public School in Phanat Nikhom, Chonburi Province, told the Global Times that the delegation was headed by the mayor and consisted of 39 representatives from various fields including charities, businesses, Yingge coaches and performers and school teachers. 

"The oldest was over 70 years old and the youngest was 16. They will interact with the schools and Yingge teams in Shantou and Puning, watch Yingge shows and perform with Chinese Yingge practitioners together," Wei added.

Another participant is Deng Yao, a scholar who has been devoted to the intangible cultural heritage of Guangdong. In June 2023, Deng brought two young people from the Puning Fumei Youth Yingge Team to visit the Yingge teams in Chonburi and Udon Thani. 

Following the trip in June, the Shantou Cultural Exchange Delegation again traveled to Thailand in July to meet the mayor and Yingge team representatives, and both sides expressed desire for more mutual visits and exchanges.

"The visit of the Chinese local government exchange delegation directly built an official channel for the exchange of Yingge between the two places, and stimulated a strong aspiration for Thailand Yingge to return home," Deng said.

Second home for Yingge

In the Mid-Autumn Festival of 1942, a Chinese person surnamed Luo organized a formal Yingge performance in Phanat Nikhom. In 1947, Zhang Keshan, another Chinese person, established an Yingge team in Nakhon Sawan, and performed in the Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival every year. Later, Yingge dance became popular in Mid-Autumn Festival and Spring Festival performances. In the 1950s and 1960s, many provinces with relatively large Chinese communities established Yingge teams, developing the inheritance of Yingge in Thailand.

Nowadays, Yingge has spread all over Thailand, particularly in Chonburi Province, Nakhon Sawan Province and Udon Thani Province. 

The development of Thai Yingge is also changing with the times. In the Mid-Autumn Festival of 2023, Deng experienced a different Chinese traditional festival in Thailand.

The streets were crowded with people, and there were incense cases, gongs and drums, lanterns, lion dances, golden dragons and lanterns in the street.

A Mid-Autumn Festival full of rich Chinese flavor attracted local people and tourists of all ethnic groups. Thai traditional songs and dances and Western music were included, giving this traditional Chinese festival an international color.

But the most popular item that night was still Yingge dance. "Perhaps the Chaoshan people thousands of kilometers away would think it strange that in a town of 120,000 people, there were three Yingge teams performing on the Mid-Autumn Festival night, and two of them were elementary school Yingge teams," Deng recalled.

"I have never seen such a lively Mid-Autumn Festival in China! The first time I saw Yingge dance live was in Thailand," a Chinese volunteer teacher who had just graduated from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies told Deng. 

Thai Yingge has a strong Chinese traditional cultural color and the flags, gongs and drums, costumes and straw hats of the Yingge teams all have traditional Chinese cultural elements. 
Photos: Courtesy of Deng Yao

Photos: Courtesy of Deng Yao


People-to-people exchange

The pandemic dampened global tourism, but Yingge dance has been used by local governments in Thailand as a means to revive the tourism economy. 

Since last November, Phanat Nikhom has arranged Yingge performances in the open air every weekend, attracting tourists and stimulating consumption. The county also developed a Yingge Culture Experience One-day Tour project, using Yingge to promote tourism. 

On October 1 this year, Udon Thani Province also held a Yingge Marathon Fun Race, attracting many local residents and foreign tourists to participate.

In recent years, Deng has been studying the development and innovation of Yingge. Throughout 2022, Deng embarked on five special Yingge trips, going deep into places including Chonburi and Udon Thani, following Yingge and listening to the stories of people who have inherited and developed this original Chinese culture.

"With the spread of videos and reports from Chinese media, Thai Yingge has now been transmitted back to its hometown, arousing the curiosity of Chaoshan Yingge people, and also awakening the nostalgia and longing of Thai Chinese and young people who love Yingge," said Deng.

Deng Yao, senior attorney of the Cultural Heritage Public Welfare Law Center at Lifang & Partners, contributed to the story