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Updated: January 11, 2012 15:41 IST

Dancer who brought Bharatanatyam to Mao’s China dies

Ananth Krishnan
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Zhang Jun, the first Chinese to study classical dance in India, taught Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Indian dance in Beijing for decades, inspiring hundreds of students to follow her passion. Photo: Special Arrangement
Zhang Jun, the first Chinese to study classical dance in India, taught Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Indian dance in Beijing for decades, inspiring hundreds of students to follow her passion. Photo: Special Arrangement

Zhang Jun, a Chinese dancer who brought Bharatanatyam and Kathak to Mao’s China in the 1950s and inspired thousands to follow her passion for classical Indian culture over a celebrated, five decade-long teaching career, passed away following a long battle with cancer. She was 79.

Zhang first visited India as a curious 19-year-old in the early 1950s, when she was encouraged by former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to study Indian dance and culture and serve as a bridge between the two newly founded young nations.

She later helped found one of China’s most celebrated dance troupes, the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble, which still continues to travel across China and Asia performing classical dance forms, and is famed in this country for the high technical skill of its elite members.

For Zhang, India became a life-long, all-consuming passion to which she dedicated her life. She became a window into India for two generations of young Chinese, who would flock to her modest first-floor apartment in north Beijing to learn Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi.

“She was a bridge between two people, and she thought it was her life’s mission to bring the two countries closer through her teaching,” Han Xiao Xia, her only son, told The Hindu in an interview.

Zhang first travelled to India in 1954, the first of her eight visits to the country. She was 19 then, and an aspiring dancer who was studying Russian ballet in Shanghai, at a time when Soviet influence dominated Chinese arts.

She was sent to India as part of a group of young students after the then Premier Zhou Enlai decided to set up professional troupes that would perform Asian dance forms, which he saw as a way to bring China closer to its neighbours.

“She was very interested in ballet, so she was, at first, not at all keen about going to India,” recalled her husband, Wei Jun, who is 79.

“But after that first visit, she became very interested,” he said. “She decided that this was what she wanted to do. That experience changed her life”.

In India, Zhang met Uday Shankar, regarded as the father of modern Indian dance, and visited Indian schools.

On her return, she became an integral part of Zhou Enlai’s project, which had gathered momentum after the 1955 Bandung Conference, and helped found the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble in 1961.

Zhang became proficient in a range of dance forms, from Myanmar and Cambodia to Vietnam and India, performing for visiting heads of states and becoming one of China’s most talented dancers.

Indian dance, though, was her biggest passion. She returned to India on eight occasions, studying with Birju Maharaj and travelling to Kalakshetra in Chennai.

The only time Zhang stopped dancing was during the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when she was sent to the villages of northern Hebei along with her husband and forced to do farming work, like many in her generation. Classical dance was reviled as a bourgeois habit in those times.

The experience would have a deep impact on her life. Her son Han was born in 1969, and grew up away from her in Beijing. She was not allowed to return to the city to be with her son for much of the first seven years of his life.

“After the Cultural Revolution, she told me, do anything with your life but don’t do the arts,” he recalled.

Zhang went back to teaching in the more open 1980s, and would patiently educate young Chinese girls about the intricacies of Bharatanatyam and Kathak.

She performed for Indian heads of state when they toured China, meeting former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and former President R. Venkataraman in 1992 during their historic visits to China.

She had to stop teaching in 1996 when she began battling breast cancer. Despite being weakened by chemotherapy and three surgeries, she resumed her classes and fought her way back into good health.

“Even when she was ill, she was always thinking about dance, and about her students,” said Han.

When cancer returned in 2006, she would have to finally give up her great passion.

“Even until her last day, she was always thinking about the arts and dance,” said Jin Shanshan, a student of Zhang’s who went on to set up her own school in Beijing to teach classical Indian dance and is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.

“Even the last conversation we had was about dance,” Jin said. “She dreamt she could be healed and come back and do more, and continue transferring her knowledge to more people around her”.

Zhang was born in the town of Qichuan in central Hubei province in 1933 to a family of intellectuals. Her mother was a university teacher. She met her husband, Wei Jun, when they were both studying the arts – he later became a conductor of classical Chinese orchestras.

Wei said he always knew his wife had a special talent. “In our university days, she would wake up at 2 am to practice – before everyone else,” he recalled. “As a musician myself, and a lover of art, I was happy to do the housework to support her! I felt she worked really hard for the Indian arts, which was her life’s mission”.

Jin Shanshan said she plans to hold a memorial service in Beijing to celebrate Zhang’s life, and she hopes the Indian Government will also do its part to commemorate her contribution to the relationship between the two countries.

Her funeral was held in Beijing on January 8. Zhang had asked to be cremated with an anklet wrapped around her leg.

“Zhang told me that she wanted me to take her mission forward and introduce Indian arts to more Chinese,” said Jin. “She said, ‘I may not be there with you in person, but I will always be there in spirit’”.

Great article ! At a time when fear and war mongering news tend to hog the headlines, these kinds of inspiring and deserving stories should be given ample space. I never knew there was a Zhang Jun doing the kind of work she did. Kudos to "The Hindu" and Ananth Krishnan for bringing us her life-story.

from:  Sreepathy S
Posted on: Jan 24, 2012 at 21:05 IST

Bravo and salutations to Ms Zhang! India bows to her for building this bridge of dance between 2 strong cultures, let's hope the path paved by her will remain in the field of dance and culture. We pray for soul to rest in peace.

from:  Lalita Bhattacharjee
Posted on: Jan 21, 2012 at 21:51 IST

It is a very heart warming article. I wish that The Hindu had complimented the story with a piture gallery. Her early picture in her ponytails shows her to be a very attractive girl. Acknowledgements from the people who she touched would have been additionally welcome. As a reader I would hope that it will jog the highly inert Indian govt and state dept. to formally recognize her, and honor her memory by state gestures. A Padma award could be considered for someone who dedicated her life to Indian dance. Wikipedia does not have a reference to her, which, as a reader, I hope that The Hindu could furnish to Wiki. Finally, a farewell to the danseuse and a prayer for her eternal peace.

from:  Dr. Ajay
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 21:09 IST

Valuable and interesting despatch by Anantha Krishnan. Hindu would do well to place more correspondents like him in other parts of China so that we get a direct feed of the developments in the various regions and there is better under understanding between the Chinese and Indian people. That may do better in govt to govt. relations automatically. Cultural activities were on the ascendant in those days of India-China Friendship’ unfortunately these were discontinued after 1062. Even as the border issues are not settled nor is there any likelihood of these being settled in the near future and in spite of the pinpricks we are frequently being adminsitered by Chinese, we should be clear in our vision and attitude. Be prepared to meet all the eventualities even as we do a lot more in cultural and peoples to peoples visits. Let us be stronger and also a bit more mature. Sanskrit Institutes and Indian cultural delegations and visits of poets should be encouraged.

from:  S Subramanyan
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 19:05 IST

Great Article about a great character. It is really amazing to know that some people have great passion on Indian art forms which most of the Indians do not bother to learn. These stories about great people like Zhang should inspire more Indians in learning the art. China is a great country and had a lot of cultural ties for more than 2000 years with India. We should grow in unison and learn about each other more.

from:  Sriram
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 16:49 IST

What a pity that such person's are brought to the fore only after them passing away...may your soul rest in peace and may it bring to the sino-indian relationship more peace, understanding and harmony.

from:  Raja Ganapathy
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 15:43 IST

Very Nice article brought out by Hindu .. I am in china since one year and i know Chinese people personally .. It makes me really proud that Zhang learnt and promoted indian classical dance in china ... Its really a inspiring story for not only Chinese , but even Indians too. I request Indian Govt to recognize the contribution of such great personality ..

from:  Hanamantagoud
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 15:24 IST

Wow! what a wonderful gesture of love for Bharatanatyam. Even in her death bed she wanted her country youngsters to learn the classical art. Hope our young generations gets a clue from this...

from:  Anand Kappagantula
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 11:36 IST

Wish your soul rest in peace and hopefully your support will continue to blossom a unconditional relationship between these countries for ever.

from:  Govind, Singapore
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 11:17 IST

Its really inspiring to read articles such as these

from:  Amruth
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 09:47 IST

A very touching story. Art is the expression of aesthetic ability of an individual - which in turn is what is truly called "Spirit". This ability transcends all other man made barriers.

from:  MSR Ayyangar
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 08:36 IST

Indeed, it makes me proud to know that Indian dance has inspired a chinese woman to this extent that she dedicated her life for it. Her life has defintely served it's purpose. Indian dance has certianly proved that it can bring about closeness between two nations. I pray for Zhang's soul to rest in peace.

from:  chital
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 08:32 IST

Excellent article. Articles like these, throw light on someone really special, but not known to many. Taking Indian arts into china is special indeed. I sincerely pray for Zhang Jun's soul to rest in peace.
It is also great to see that though there have been many reported clash between the two governments, the civilians never bothered about it and did their best to act naturally. Good too read such articles.

from:  Srikrishnan
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 02:49 IST
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