November Q&A: Ancient Arts
Kung-Tai Tsay came to this country from Taiwan back in 1975 when her husband was accepted into graduate school here. But, in all the years since,Tsay never forgot the Chinese traditions she grew up with. She pursued the ancient arts of Chinese knot tying and classical dance. Today – when she’s not helping with the family business or enjoying her now-grown children – she works with the N.H. State Council on the Arts, and on her own, to help people better understand the Chinese culture.
How is Chinese classical dance different from any other?
Classical is kind of like a palace dance; it’s not folk dance. There are hand motions and very, very small steps. And the costumes are very elegant, very elaborate, with lots of embroidery.
They look like they’re heavy …
Very heavy. They’re hard for me to carry place to place, but it’s kind of like exercise. And I really like the dancing, I really enjoy it.
Where do you perform?
In schools mostly, though we recently did a program for the City of Boston. We’re not professional; we just like to dance.
Who is “we”?
The Leeren Dance Troupe, which is a non-profit group of dancers that was formed 10 years ago. I still take lessons. Last year I got a grant from the N.H. State Council on the Arts to be an apprentice to a dance master artist from Boston, Chu Ling.
Tell me about your knot tying.
It’s an ancient folkart, probably going way back to pre-history when the knots were used to tie animal skins together. Before writing, they were used to record important events. Some knots – there are 13 in all – are basic and used for clothing, jewelry and wall decorations. Some are used as religious symbols, especially the pan-chang, which symbolizes the Buddhist belief in endless life cycles. It’s very difficult; it’s done in three dimensions so you have to be thinking about all sides. It can take days to do.
What kind of material do you use?
Silk, traditionally, but that’s pretty expensive now so we use nylon. And all the knots are made with just one piece.
One piece? Wow.
Yes, and it’s an art that almost got lost. When China was occupied by the communists, people didn’t have the luxury of time to do that kind of thing. In the late 1970s a woman who worked for the museum in Taipei looked at an old Chinese painting and saw interesting knots on the clothing. She studied the knots and revived the tradition. That’s how it started again.
What do you hope to accomplish with the outreach you do?
I feel if people understand the Chinese culture, if we know each other better, than we can respect each other more. Also, when I was a young wife at my husband’s graduate school, I was helped by a volunteer organization. It really opened my eyes and I said that one day I would, as people say, pay it forward.
Kung-Tai Tsay is available for demonstrations and workshops. Call (603) 888-9909 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.