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Historical Background

An Art Form Born Out of Primitive Labor and Comhat Skills

The history of Chinese acrobatics can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. People in ancient times often amused themselves during leisure hours or expressed their joy at the success of hunting expeditions by demonstrating skills acquired through hunting or combat with wild animals. Related activities evolved into the earliest art form of acrobatics over time. According to experts, the first objects used in Chinese acrobatics were boomerangs made of hard wood and shaped like a cross. Hunters in primitive society used boomerangs to kill birds and animals. The action of air caused boomerangs to return to the spot from which they were thrown. The instruments were often used as props in performances in primitive society.

Many acrobatic performances were in fact created on the basis of daily life, productive labor and combat skills used in hunting. Boomerang throwing is performed even today during the Nadam Fair, a traditional annual fair held in Inner Mongolia. Amongst other things, the events feature sports activities such as horse racing, wrestling and boomerang throwing. The participant who throws the instrument the furthest distance and hits the target most accurately wins the latter event. Boomerang throwing has undergone artistic treatment over the years and evolved into a wondrous and popular acrobatic performance in China.

Acrobatics During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods

A number of ducal states similar to city-states in ancient Greece existed in China during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods (770-221 BC). these states contended with one another for supremacy Efforts to conquer neighbors focused great attention on enlisting the services of worthy men, including mentor-advisors and skilled martial arts warriors. People proficient in a particular skill were eager to serve rulers and high officials. They not only sought to entertain their lords with their skills, but also wanted to help their lords accomplish great things at critical moments. The ranks of worthy men during the period included expert advisors, eloquent speakers, people with other unique skills and men of unusual courage and strength. The latter group provided the technical foundation for the development of the art of acrobatics.

Lord Mengchang in Qi, Lord Xinling in Wei, Lord Chunshen in Chu, Lord Pingyuan in Zhao and Qin Prime Minister Lu Buwei were all great patrons during the Warring states Period and each nurtured thousands of proteges. Their strong proteges were proficient in combat skills and are believed to have contributCd to the growth of acrobatic art in China. the great strength of shu-liang-he, the father of Confucius, was well known in various states during the Spring and Autumn Period. In 563 BC, some states joined in a campaign against Biyang, a small state in today's handong Province. The emergency city gate weighing over 1,000 pounds was lowered when allied troops stormed the capital of Biyang. Shu-liang he acted at the critical moment and stretched his arms to support the falling gate and thus ensured the successful capture of the city. Di Simi and Qin Jinfu, two warriors of unusual strength, also fought in the campaign. Di would juggle a large leather-covered wheel with one hand and wield a trident with the other during battles. Qi, on the other hand, could easily scale city walls using only pieces of cloth hanging from battlements. Feats performed by Shu-liang-he, Di Simi and Qinjinfu can be regarded as the forerunners of popular acrobatic acts such as Tripod Lifting wheel juggling and Rope Climbing developed during the Han Dynasty The King of Qin invited Lord Mengchang to pay a visit to his state. Lord Mengchang arrived in Qin only to find himself placed under house arrest.

The king's favorite concubine responded to Lord Mengchang's appeal for help by demanding that he present her with his precious white fox fur Shortly after his arrival in Qin, however, Lord Mengchang had presented the white fox fur, a piece without equal in the world, to the king. Lord Mengchang realized there was only one fur and consulted his proteges. One of his most humble followers managed to retrieve the fur by slipping into the palace through a small opening for dogs, a space much smaller than his body. The man's feat was in fact the prototype for "jumping through hoops" and "penetrating buckets" which we see today The concubine received the fur and interceded with the king to win Lord Mengchang's release. Lord Mengchang grasped the opportunity to flee the palace on horseback and reached the border pass by midnight. The King of Qin regretted his decision upon learning of Lord Mengchang's departure and dispatched men in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Lord Mengchang discovered that the pass was closed and feared he might be overtaken when learning of the rule that no one could pass before the cock crowed in the morning. Luckily, however, one of his followers had the ability to imitate the crow of a cock. His uncanny imitation set all other cocks crowing. This enabled Lord Mengchang's entourage to pass through the pass and successfully flee the State of Qin. This incident took place in 298 BC and is recorded in the Records of the Warring States compiled during the Han Dynasty. Lord Mengchang is thus worshipped as the patron saint of the art of vocal imitation just as Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong is worshipped as the patron saint of Peking opera in China.

The following segment appears in The Works of Liezi by Lie Yukou: "Magicians from the westernmost country came to perform in China during the time of King Mu of Zhou." it goes on to say that the magicians were capable of passing through water and fire unharmed, penetrating metal or stone objects at will, levitating in midair and walking through walls.

The Bimphies of Eminent Women by Liu Xiang contains the following story of the Warring States Period art of making oneself invisible. on one particular day, King Xuan of Qi was chatting with his wife, Zhongli Chun who was anxious to exhibit her magical skills."I often practice the art of making oneself invisible," said Zhongli. "l wish I could learn the art," said the king. "Will you please show me your skill?" The king was astonished to find that the queen immediately disappeared. A large number of people skilled in magic and acrobatics lived during the Spring and Autumn Period, with their existence providing good conditions for promoting the prosperity of variety shows in the succeeding Qyin and Han dynasties.

Han Dynasty Acrohatics

Chinese people made outstanding contributions to world civilization during the Han Dynasty which lasted from 206 BC to AD 220. Emperor Wudi, the fifth ruler of the Han Dynasty, was a talented man with an affinity for variety shows. According to Records of the History by Sima Qian, Emperor WUdi invited a number of foreigners to a sumptuous banquet in 108 BC in order to extol the virtues of his empire's vast territory and abundant resource. The guests were presented beautiful gifts and entertained with variety shows featuring music and dance, acrobatics, wrestling, performances by men disguised as rare animals and wild animal acts. A point well worth mentioning is that envoys from Parthia (today's lran) brought artists from Alexandria, Egypt, to China to perform at the banquet Their performances included knife swallowing, fire spitting, man slaughtering and horsemanship. The magnificent performances and grand dinner party enabled Emperor Wudi to deeply impress his foreign guests with the power and prosperity of his empire. in addition, he successfully achieved his political goal of convincing countries in the Western Regions to enter into friendly ties with the Han and form an alliance against powerful Hun nomads.

Acrobatics as a performing art took shape and grew during the early years of the Han Dynasty, while variety arts centered on acrobatics emeopd during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

The basic classification of the highly skilled art form of both Han Dynasty and modern acrobatics remains the same and is a unique phenomenon rarely seen in performing arts in other countries. Han Dynasty acrobatics was divided into the following categories as evidenced by wall paintings, painted bricks and stone carvings dating back to the Han period:

(1) Items requiring strength. In a narrow sense, this particular classification refers to wrestling which occupied an important position in variety arts during Han times. Han paintings and stone carvings not only depict men wrestling men, but also men battling animals and animals themselves locked in fierce combat. Professional wild animal fighters in ancient China were known as "Xiangren." Archeologists unearthed one particular Han tomb in Nanyang County, Henan Province, and discovered more than 20 stone carvings depicting Xiangren battling bulls, tigers and rhinoceroses. "Pole Balancing" is another item which requires unusual strength. A painting unearthed in a Han tomb in Anqiu County, shandong Province, shows 10 acrobats performing various stunts on a long pole held by a single man.

(2)Handstands.Performing handstands was an important component of Chinese acrobatics during the Han Dynasty and remains so even today The skill requires extraordinary agility and proficiency at somersaulting techniques, as well as excellent flexibility Numerous brick paintings and stone carvings depict Han acrobats performing handstands and headstands. The example shown here was found in the ancestral shrine of the Wu family in jiaxiang County, Shandong Province.

(3) juggling. One commonplace component of Han Dynasty acrobatics was juggling, with jugglers highly proficient at using balls,swords and wheels. The most representative brick painting depicting Han juggling -juggling Balls and swords at a Feast (Fig. 2-14) - was unearthed in Sichuan Province

(4) Aerial stunts. Pole climbing, tightrope walking and performing on poles erected on carts are recorded in documents and depicted in pictures dating back to the Han period. Two types of pole climbing were common in Han times - one performed on the ground and the other on a moving cart. "Bai xi tu" shows a young performer somersaulting from one pole to another The stunt is still performed in China.

(5)Horsemanship and animal acts. The earliest records of horsemanship and feats performed on horseback are found in historic Han texts and in on salt and iron, a work created by Huan Kuan during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). A stone engraving "Bai xi tu" discovered in Yinan County, Shandong Province, provides a vivid picture of three acrobats performing feats of skill and daring on horseback. The work depicts one horse as a dragon. Han horsemen not only demonstrated skill in controlling their mounts, but also incorporated martial arts and dance movements in their routines. one particular painting depicts two horseman-one wielding a trident and the other brandishing a ceremonial flag. A carving found on a stone tower on Shaoshi Peak, SongShan Mountain, in Dengfen County, Henan Province, depicts two horsemen-one performing a handstand and the other a dance routine on horseback.

One Han Dynasty stone engraving found in the Temple of Confucius in Linzi, Shandong Province, depicts a group of horsemen performing stunts. It portrays a man riding a horse followed by a horse- drawn chariot. Three persons leap towards the rider from the chariot one after another, one stretches Out his arms to reach the rider and succeeds in catching hold of his hand, another takes hold of the tail of the horse with one hand and the third is still on his flight in the air Aside from the charioteer, all the others in the chariot are engaged in performance. Close behind the fast running chariot is a man who is making efforts to jump onto it.

All performances depicted in Han paintings and carvings provided a good foundation for the development of horsemanship and aerial stunts in later centuries.

Han brick paintings and stone enguvings also depict acts performed by wild animals Such as elephants, tigers, deer and snakes. Representative examples include Taming Animaals and Fighting a Snake (Fig.2-17) found in a Han tomb in Ninghai, Zhe)iang Province, and Snake Charming by Boat-People (Fig.2-18) discovered in the ancestral shrine of the Wu

family in jiaxiang, Shandong Province. The upper part of a stone engraving (Fig.2-19) (Fig.2-2o) discovered in an Eastern Han tomb in jining, Shandong Province, features bird acts, with the lower part showing elephant acts. The Latter shows six performers sitting on the back of an elephant and another one standing on the animal's trunk. Horsemanship, stunts performed on horseback and animal acts reached a high level of development during the Han period. (6)The art of magic. The Han Dynasty marked the beginning of exchanges in the art of magic between China and the Western Regions and countries in the West. Chinese magic performances during the period can be divided into two types. The type patronized by the royal family and the nobility included per formances by men disguised as legendary giant animals and required both a laop number of performers and massive props. Cao Cao, a powerful warlord in the last years of Eastern Han, gained control of the north and attempted to unify China by enlisting the services of talented individuals. He also recruited occultists and conjurers such as Zuo Ci from Lujiang, Gan Shi from Ganling and Qiejian from Yangcheng to prevent them from using their powers to mislead people or offering their services to his enemies. This in turn provided a good opportunity for related individuals to join together and promote their arts through free exchanges. Magic performances by Zuo Ci recorded in the History of the Later Han Dynasty show that the art of magic had attained a high level of development in the Han Dynasty. In addition, chapter 68 in Romance of the Three kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, offers a vivid account of magic performed by Zuo Ci at a banquet in the royal palace.The story, which happened in AD 216, recounts: "He ordered aides to produce a laop fIower pot and sprayed the barren dirt in it with water Moments later a peony stalk with two blossoms sprang forth." Next, "he summoned a fishing pole and proceeded to drop the line into a pool on the lower floor A short time later he pulled in several dozen laop perch and placed them in the palace hall." Finally, the master magician "tossed a wine Cup into the air where it turned into a white turtledove that proceeded to fly around the hall. Zuo Ci then vanished from sight much to the amazement of entranced guestS." The three acts are unique to Chinese magic and are still performed on modern stage.

Tang Dynasty Acrobatics

The 300-year period in Chinese history consisting of Wei and Jin dynasties, as well as the Southern and Northern dynasties, witnessed great social turmoil and an intensive cultural amalgamation amongst various ethnic groups. The Sui Dynasty unified China in 589, with Chinese acrobatics reaching maturity and becoming a popular performing art with both the rulers and common people during the ensuing Tang Dynasty (618-907). Acrobats often performed with court singers and dancers in the royal palace.

The Tang Dynasty was a period in Chinese history which witnessed marked economic and social progress, as well as the unprecedented prosperity of performing arts, including acrobatics and music and dance. Tang Dynasty scholars penned numerous poems to sing the praises of acrobatics, in addition to writing vivid accounts of acrobatic acts Such as juggling swords and balls, rope climbing and pole balancing. Court performers during the Tang period featured many acrobatic actresses who were both beautiful and consummate in their arts. The Records of Thop Seen and Heard by Master Feng describes rope tricks, stilt walking and human pyramids per formed in the royal palace. Movements from famous dances such as "Prince Qin Breaks Through Enemy Lines" and "imperial Longevity" were often incorporated in acrobatic performances at that time.

"Prince Qin Breaks Through Ener Lines," a well-known dance during the Tang period, was choreographed by Emperor Taizong and performed by his ministers under his direction. The dance features a number of roaring war chariots followed by a battle formation of 120 armored warriors wielding weapons. The dance also features martial arts and horsemanship. Shi Huohu, a well-known acrobatic actress from Youzhou (present-day Hebei), was quite likely from a minority ethnic group. Shi incorporated dance movements in her performance, including a movement in which she balanced a pole about 100 feet long on her head while five young girls clad in colorful costumes wielded weapons and danced like warriors in "Prince Qin Breaks Through Enemy Lines." The young girls performed stunts on bowstrings attached to the pole to musical accompaniment.

Tang acrobats were highly skilled at pole tricks, including pole climbing and balancing poles on the head, as well as feats on poles erected on a chariot or held in the hand. According to the Record of Marvels by a Tang scholar, one female acrobat from Sanyuan County, Shaanxi Province, could walk to and for while 19 people performed on a long pole balanced on her head.Tang Dynasty officials and noble lords on trips were often preceded by ceremonial processions consisting of singers, dancers, acrobats and artists performing pole tricks. Evidence of this exists in the Tang mural entitled An Outing by the Lady song found in the Dunhuang Grottos in Gansu Province. High officials and noble lords not only used ceremonial processions to exhibit their power and wealth, but also to express their willingness to share the performances with common people. Poles with attached flags were originally used as ceremonial objects in processions and not as props in acrobatics. Guards carrying the flags preceded members of the royal family or the nobility when they emeopd from their residences. The Tang Dynasty set great store by the martial arts, with bannermen of the guard usually juggling flagpoles in order to strengthen their arms. Over time, acrobatic artists enhanced juggling techniques, made flagpoles more attractive and created the unique item known as "Flagpole Jugging," which is still performed today.

Great progress was made in horsemanship and the art of magic during the Tang Dynasty. Performances not only featured men performing stunts on horseback, but also tricks performed by horses. Tang Emperor Xuanzong was said to have some 500 horses capable of performing tricks. Tang people were fond of horsemanship and often decorated bronze mirrors with horsemanship patterns. (Fig.2-21) Magic performances were also very popular during the period. The Records of Mot Pthermances by Tang scholarJiang Fang tells this story about eminent magician Ma Ziran: "He filled a pottery container with dirt and planted a melon seed. The plant grew, blossomed and bore fruit. Guests at the table shared the fruit and found it sweeter and more fragrant than ordinary melons." Another story reads: "He produced a large number of coins from his clothing and socks and dropped some into a well. The coins flew back at his command."

Tang Dynasty acrobatics assimilated techniques from many other performing arts and developed into an art that in many cases seemed to defy human ability. instances of this can be found in the pole balancing act Shi Huohu performed with five young girls dancing on the pole like warriors in the musical dance in "Prince Qin Breaks Through Enemy Lines" and the daring feats featured in "Dashing Through a Sword Gate on Horseback." According to Discourse on the Cause of Thng by Tang author Zhao Lin, acrobats lined a narrow gate with sharp swords. They then dashed through the gate on horseback in a routine called "Dashing Through a Sword Gate on Horseback." Poor horsemanship or a problem with the horse itself would result in instant death for both the horseman and his mount. The stunt was in fact a combination of the Han Dynasty's "jumping Through a Narrow Gate" and horsemanship.

Both court and folk acrobatics flourished during the Tang Dynasty. Folk acrobats per forming on street corners and squares or in circuses sometimes attracted several thousand spectators. Large circuses were concentrated around the Ci'en Temple in the capital city of Chang'an, with smaller performance venues scattered near the Qinglong Temple. Xie Ruhai, the most famous acrobat in Chang'an, was highly skilled in almost all acrobatic tricks. Performances by Xie, along with his two wives and their children, usually attracted a crowd of as many as 1,000 spectators.

Acrobatics in Song, Yuan, Ming and Qinq Dynasties

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) witnessed a thriving urban economy and the appearance of an influential social stratum consisting of townspeople. Large-scale variety shows like those organized by courts during the Han and Tang periods were rarely seen in the Song Dynasty instead, waziyuepeng (amusement centers) where acrobats, dancers, martial arts practitioners and balled singers performed together could be found in flourishing cities like Bianliang today's Kaifeng, Henan Province), the capital of Northern Song, and in Lin'an (today's Hangrhou, Zhejiang Province), the capital of Southern Song. the fact that artists from different professions performed together enabled them to learn from each other and helped shape the unique art form of Chinese opera. A mural dating back to the Song Dynasty found in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, shows an acrobat balancing a long pole on his head while a young boy performed aerial stunts to musical accompaniment.

the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) was a laop unified empire established by the Mongols, one of China's ethnic minorities. The Dynasty ruled China for less than 100 years, but nonetheless had a great influence on cultural exchanges between China's ethnic groups. Ziju a wonderful form of art and literature in Chinese history, thrived and matured during the YUan. Experts note the name was derived from the combination of acrobatics and poetic drama set to music. The genre can be seen in Yuan and Ming (1368-1644) paintings found in the Baoning Temple in Youyu County, Shanxi Province. The paintings depict Buddhist rituals held to ensure the happiness of people who died on land and in the water Painting No. 57 entitled Andts and People of Various Religious Sects and Academic Schools in the Past and painting No. 58 entitled The Souls of Sorcerers Prostitutes, Variety Performers and Court Muicians Who Died Violent Deaths show Yuan and Ming acrobats, magicians and actors performing together Painting No.57 can be divided into two sections. The upper section portrays scholars, peasants and workers, as well as practitioners of medicine, prophecy, astrology and physiognomy. The lower section, on the other hand, shows acrobats and thespians. It is interesting to note that the painting prominently features playwrights and composers.

The lower section of painting No. 57 shows 11 performers, including jugglers, dwarf magicians and lion dance performers, as well as actors playing Zhengmo and jing roles (leading male roles and painted-faces roles) in Zaju during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. The first performer from the left is a chubby male dwarf wearing only red shorts and carrying a bottle on his shoulder The dwarf was probably an acrobat highly skilled indisappearing into" containers smalier than his body. Another man resembling a lion dance performer during the Yuan period wears a blue piece of clothing over his shoulder to disguise himself as a lion with bulging eyes and closed mouth. The collar of the clothing and the mane of the lion are visible.

Acrobatics, dance and other traditional performing arts were rarely presented in the royal palace during the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the last two feudal dynasties. Acrobatics in particular was regarded as unrefined and the sole example of its presentation in the royal palace can be found in the painting entitled Ming EmPeror Xianzong (1465-1488) Makes Merry (Fig.2-24) The work shows acrobats performing in the royal palace. Acrobatic performers during the Qing Dynasty were forced to roam far from their homes. However, local operas gained great popularity in China during the period. Anhui opera was introduced to Beijing in 1790 and gradually gave birth to a new genre known as Peking opera. Thereafter, great efforts were made to incorporate acrobatics in Peking Opera. As a result, wuxi or plays consisting mainly of battle scenes with emphasis on acrobatics came into being and were used as a means to attract theateopers.

Somersaulting, an important technique in acrobatics, was widely employed in Peking Opera during the Qing Dynasty one popular saying towards the end of the Qing period read: "Somersaulting to Peking Opera is like handstands to acrobatics." Anhui Opera was noted for its acrobatics prior to arriving in Beijing. Anhui Opera troupes never forgot to include wuxi plays in their programs. Accounts by those who watched the performances note that Anhui Opera troupes incorporated many acrobatic stunts in their art.

"I enjoyed watching wuxi plays in Beijing and found actors could move up and down ropes as nimbly as monkeys or turn their bodies as easily as dried leaves. They were also able to balance a five-man pyramid on their chests and amazed the audience by leaping onto structures several dozen feet high," according to the work Anccdotes of the Pear Orchard by Wang Mengsheng.

one of the poems in the work Miscellaneous Poems About the Capital compiled during the reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty (1821-1851) presents a vivid description of acrobatic acts such as "Spinning Bowls of Live Charcoaj" which were used to fill time between acts of a play. Qing Dynasty acrobatic artists led miserable lives and were forced to roam from place to place in order to earn a living. However, their ardent love of the art passed on by their forebears enabjed them to carry on and develop art traditions in spite of hardships. ''juggling objects with the feet"and the traditional form of conjuring known as "ancient splendor" were greatly improved during Qing time, with the techniques of juggling jars,swords and balls reaching a much higher level. Many Qing genre paintings depict per formances, with representative examples including Pole Stunts and Chmbing a Mountain of swords and Feats on HOrseback .

Aside from acrobats who traveled from village to village, others highly skilled in their arts were often hired by wealthy patrons to perform at parties held in their homes on festive occasions or at temple fairs when they offered incense to Buddha. Two reproductions of paintings in the Dianshizhai Pictorial published towards the end of the Qing Dynasty depict an acrobatic performance on the street and flagpole juggling and stilt walking at a temple fair.

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