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Encore: Handkerchief – A Musical Tribute to China’s Rich Folklore

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Written by Cheetahara
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Encore: Handkerchief
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The northeastern regions of China boast a rich tapestry of history, culture, and customs. These traditions, deeply rooted in the rhythms of nature and agriculture, find a fresh voice in the “Encore: Handkerchief” strains by the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra. Crafted by the talented composer Junyi Tan and brought to life under the baton of conductor Milen Nachev, this piece encapsulates the lifeblood of these age-old traditions, channeling the vitality of communal celebrations that have been passed down and evolved through generations.

Before delving into the details of this symphony, let’s arm ourselves with some background knowledge.

Understanding Handkerchief Dance

The dance likely originated from the folk practices of the Han Chinese and the ethnic minority groups residing in Northeast China. These communities, living in close harmony with nature, celebrated the changing seasons, the joy of harvest, and the pivotal communal events through dance and music. The handkerchief, a common and versatile personal item, naturally became a prop in these celebrations, symbolizing wishes for prosperity, harmony, and a bountiful harvest.

As communities gathered to celebrate, the handkerchief, with its easy availability and symbolic significance, was incorporated into dances to add visual flair and expressiveness. Over time, these improvised dances were formalized into the handkerchief dance, incorporating specific movements that vividly mimic the natural elements, agricultural life, and the profound bond between the people and their ancestral lands.

The Dance Begins

“Encore: Handkerchief” starts with a rhythm that builds anticipation, akin to four purposeful steps forward. As if taking momentum, each beat (1-2-3-4) pushes forward, with the back foot echoing the front foot’s path. This sets the pace, which soon bursts into a spirited dance with a faster, more exhilarating tempo. It’s as if every group of dancers are united, creating an ongoing and ascending whirl. As the violins release a free-falling rhythm with a flurry of rapid notes, it feels as if the artist’s spirit is set free.

Sounds of Celebration

Traditionally, dancers would sway to the percussion beats of drums, trumpets, and gongs. At ((0:28)), this atmosphere is perfectly recaptured as the sound of drums and gongs resonate, carrying the festive spirit and inviting everyone to dance and share joy.

The entrance of clarinets and flutes infuses a gentler yet still festive tone, evoking images of neighbors sharing harvest stories. Such group performances resonate with unity and harmony, underscoring the communal spirit of Northeast China.

Nature’s whispers come alive around the midpoint. The soft tapping of xylophones paints a scene of dew-kissed mornings. With a pure and flexible timbre, each note of xylophones is reminiscent of droplets landing on leaves or streams murmuring. With a slight variation at the end, it brings us closer to the local natural essence, adding a folkloric mood and serving as a bridge to the next part.

Nature’s Melody

((0:44)) The orchestra transports us to a tranquil countryside. We can almost visualize endless golden fields, with violins and cellos artfully sketching the landscape with their melodies. Interspersed with this sonic panorama, clarinets and flutes skillfully mimic bird-like calls at the end of each cycle. These nuanced touches breathe life into the scene, capturing its grand scale while also attending to its intricate details.

((0:56)) Trumpets once again awaken the traditional dance melody. This time, the dance feels more layered, hinting at both fun and palpable satisfaction. One can imagine grains of rice being stacked, layer by layer, representing the rich trumpet notes. This imagery conjures visions of a bountiful harvest, epitomizing the abundance and prosperity of the land.

Reaching the Climax

((1:08)) Towards the climax of the piece, the orchestra re-emphasizes the main theme—a traditional dance that’s upbeat and brimming with enthusiasm. Delving into the nuances, one can discern a rhythm that is not just rapid but also remains a coherent entity, much like the holistic nature of the handkerchief dance itself. The unique aspects of dance techniques often convey significant meanings. For instance, the brisk, steady footwork might represent the earth, paired with the gentle sway of the torso to conjure images of flowing water or drifting clouds. This duality might well symbolize the grounded reality and the dreamy aspirations. Such connections forge a deep bond between the dance and its native land, particularly in movements that celebrate agricultural life.

((1:19)) The clarinets, flutes, and bassoons lift audiences up and set the stage for a riveting climax, with the entire orchestra building in fervor. Each musician and instrument pours heart and soul into this crescendo.

The ringing sound of the bell gradually entered. It not only marks the climax of the symphony but also spreads a fresh energy throughout the orchestra.

As the finale approaches, the whole orchestra continues to heighten the pitch and amplify the intensity. The rhythm is fast and intense but concise and decisive, expressing the resolute character of the people from the Northeastern. Their optimism and the vibrant sounds of their drums instill a fervor in listeners, empowering them to tackle challenges head-on. In this aspect, the music not only pays tribute to steadfast determination but also inspires those immersed in its melodies to confront difficulties with a similar zeal.

This isn’t the only Shen Yun composition that delves into this theme. Another notable piece, crafted by artistic director D.F. and intricately arranged by Jing Xian, mirrors similar sentiments and thematic elements. If you’re keen to explore this captivating piece further, I’ve penned a detailed review of it in another post.

For those eager to immerse themselves in the world of Shen Yun, their compositions, including these gems, can be streamed online via Shen Yun Creations (Shen Yun Zuo Pin).

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Visiting the Shen Yun showroom profoundly changed my perception of traditional art's deep value, distinctly different from familiar modern pieces. This inspired me to integrate this elegant, classical style into my life, observing positive shifts in myself and my loved ones. Professionally, I value the creative process, learning from ancient artisans' patience and precision to create meaningful, quality results. Aspiring to share these traditional values, I hope we can find balance and virtue in modern chaos through the precious spiritual teachings of traditional culture and art.