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The oldest Performing Art in China

Acrobatics is a performing art which combines physical strength and skill. The Encyclopedis Britannica describes acrobatics as "the specialized and ancient art of jumping, tumbling and balancing, often using apparatus such as poles, unicycles, balls, barrels, tightropes, trampolines and flying trapezes"

Chinese acrobatics reached a high level of sophistication as early as the Warring States Period during the third century BC, with acrobats proficient at juggling seven daggers while manipulating 3-meter stilts. Acrobatic per formances are vividly depicted in brick paintings and stone engravings dating back to the Han Dynasty Various works depict acrobats performing hand tricks Such as jugging with swords, batls and bottles, as well as stunts using long poles, barrels, drum carts and galloping horses. A brick painting unearthed from a Han tomb in Pengxian County, Sichuan Province, portrays three acrobats-one performing handstands atop 12 stacked tables, another dancing on drums and a third juggling balls. (Fig.2-1) A point well worth mentioning is that modern acrobatic performances continue to feature high-altitude handstands.


A stone engraving "Bai xi tu" discovered in a Han tomb in Yinan County, Shandong Province, provides a vivid picture of ancient Chinese acrobats performing in a circus. (Fig. 2-2) The work entitled Varicty Show was found in a tomb in Beizhai Village some eight kilometers west of Yinan County The work can be divided into four parts viewed from left to right.


Part one features ball and dagger juggling, as well as a man balancing a cross on his forehead while three boys perform stunts such as tumbling and hanging upside down on the cross. The performer possessed great skill at simultaneously balancing the cross and avoiding seven plates placed at his feet.

Part two shows an orchestra of 15 musicians playing chime stones, bells, jian-drums, zithers, xun(an egg-shaped wind instrument) and panplpes.

Part three depicts "Tightrope Walking over a Mountain of Knives" and "Yulongmanyan Dance". The former shows an acrobat performing handstands on a tightrope above a series of upright knives while a performer at one end of the rope appears to be spinning meteor-like bulbs and a performer at the opposite end juggles tridents. The latter is a majestic demonstration of acrobatic performances featuring imitations of laop fish, dragons and birds.

Part four focuses on circus performances and stunts performed on drum carts. Great skill and daring is quite obviously required to perform handstands and spinning meteor-like bulbs on the backs of galloping horses or on moving drum carts. Numerous ancient items, including hand tricks, handstands, tightrope walking, horsemanship and pole climbing on moving carts, are still per formed in modern China.

Envoys of Peace and FriendshiP Spread Eastern Culture

Chinese acrobatics have long been used to promote cultural exchanges between Chinese people and people in other countries. They also played an important role in spreading and developing science and technology in ancient China, with Chinese inventing gunpowder and contributing significantly to world civilization. However, the initial use of gunpowder in China was far removed from weaponry, but instead focused on producing sound effects, smoke and pyrotechnics for acrobatic performances. Ma jun, a well-known inventor who lived during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), created numerous mechanical devices, including a number of devices designed as props for acrobatic performances and court variety shows. Chinese acrobatics is said to have inspired new ideas for inventions in foreign countries. Professor Joseph Needham noted that a French scientist invented the parachute after learning from a friend that acrobats in the East used umbrellas as safety devices while doing tightrope stunts. The use of umbrellas as safety devices for tightrope not only originated in China, but also remains as a technique employed by modern Chinese acrobats.

Acrobatic exchanges between China and other countries date back to ancient times, with acrobats from the Eastern Roman Empire and india performing in China as far back as the Han Dynasty. During the golden age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Chinese acrobatics, music and dance spread to other countries through both land and sea routes of the silk Road as an important part of Chinese culture. Ancient lndia was celebrated for its magic tricks which were introduced to China by lndian monks and artists, and he tiped enrich Chinese acrobatics. The world of Magic by Sakamoto Oiyoshi points out that Chinese magic and acrobatics were introduced to Japan in the 17th year of the Kaiyuan Reign of Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong (729). Magic and acrobatic acts such as knife swallowing, fire spitting, tree growing and tightrope walking were often performed at dinner parties held in the japanese royal palace. However, some people put the introduction of Chinese magic and acrobatic arts to japan at an even earlier date. The Shoso-in Tpeasure Depository in Nara, japan, houses a collection of Cultural relics from the Tang Dynasty, including a painted bow with a lifelike picture depicting Chinese acrobatics and music. The picture shows four young boys performing on a long pole balanced on the head of a female performer, as well as three adults climbing and a young girl sitting on a plate atop a similar long pole balanced on the head of a male performer Musicians playing flutes and pipas provide musical accompaniment for the performances. japan's Pictures of Tang Dance features a laop number of pictures vividly depicting music, dance and acrobatics from Tang Dynasty China. The album is not only important for studies of ancient music, dance and acrobatics, but also provides material evidence for the existence of Cultural exchange between China and japan. The pictures A Fourman Pyramid,(Fig.2-3) Balace two noles on thc head (Fig.2-4) SPitting Fire (Fig.2-5) and playing tricks, (Fig.2-6) demonstrate the Superb skill of Chinese acrobatics. Another picture entitledEscaping into a jar (Fig. 2-7) shows a unique Chinese acrobatic act based on magic and calisthenics. Chinese acrobatics was the first Chinese performing art to move onto the world stage in modern times. A Chinese acrobatic troupe led by the famous Chinese magician Zhu Liankui visited New York in the late 19th century. While in New York, Zhu used the opportunity to share skill at "Catching Fish in the Pond," a magic act Zuo Ci performed for Cao Cao, the powerful prime minister of the Eastern Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago, with American magician William Robinson.


Acrobatic art became a means New China used to promote cultural exchange with other countries following the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949. one year later, the Ministry of Culture acted in accordance with the wishes of Premier Zhou Enlai and formed a work team of seven people to prepare for the establishment of an acrobatic troupe.The group included Luo Ruiqing, Liao Chengzhi, Tian Han, Li Bozhao and various other outstanding generals, senior playwrights and directors or high officials in charge of cultural exchanges with foreign countries. Famous acrobatic artists from Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing and Wuhan were invited to perform in the Chinese capital, and a number of acrobatic items with rich national color were selected from their repertoires. The items included 'jumping Through Hoops on the Ground," "juggling with Jars,""Cycling Tricks," "Traditional Magic," "Hand Tricks," "Diabolo Plays," "Bowl Balancing," "Plate Spinning," "Flying from Pole to Pole" and "Wushu (martial arts) Performances." in the following month, efforts were made to improve the items, as well as costumes, props and musical accompaniment under the direction of cultural officials Li Bozhao and Zhou Weizhi. Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De voiced great approval for their preview performance at Huairentang in Zhongnanhai and decided that they should form a performing troupe to tour the Soviet Union and other European countries. Zhou Enlai named the group as the Zhonghua Acrobatic Troupe. The group was officially established in 1953 and renamed as the China Acrobatic Troupe.

The troupe visited 14 countries, including the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, Finland, Denmark, sweden and Austria over the two-odd years to convey the friendly feelings Chinese people hold for people in other nations. Performances rich in ancient Chinese culture helped the people from various countries realize that the Chinese are an industrial, courageous, intelligent, optimistic and civilized people, and that China is a peace-loving country willing to live together with other countries in a peaceful and friendly manner.

Acrobats, China's envoys of peace and friendship, have traveled around the world performing in more than 100 countries over the past 4o years and have been favorably received in numerous countries without diplomatic ties with China. Their beautiful performances have enabled citizens in various countries to feel the friendliness of Chinese people and have helped accelerate the process of establishing friendly relations. For example, in 1957, the Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe toured Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco and Ghana, none of which had diplomatic relations with China. The Chinese acrobatic troupe arrived in Ghana just as Ghanaians were celebrating their National Day. Members of the Chinese delegation joined in the National Day Parade and not only played gongs and drums, but also joined Ghanaians in songs and dances. They attended a state banquet held to celebrate Ghana's National Day, and the director of the acrobatic troupe presented the Ghanaian premier with a congratulatory letter from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The highly impressed Ghanaian premier read the letter aloud.

Chinese Acrohats in lnternational Competition

Chinese acrobats entered international competition for the first time in 1956 and have since achjeved excellent results. Sun Tai's "Mimicry," Jin Yeqin and his sister's "Trick Cycling,-' Xia Juhua's "Bowl Balancing" and Qiao Pinghai's "Plate Spinning,it as well as ",Scrambling for the Bench" and ',Pole Climbing', by the Sofdiers Acrobatic Troupe won gold medals at the Warsaw International Acrobatic Competition and World Youth Festival. Various other performances won silver and bronze medals, as well as other honors.

Chinese acrobatic arts have scored even bigger strides on the world stage since China introduced its reform and opening poficies in 1978. in December 1981, Chinese acrobats participated in the Fifth Festival Mondial dU Cirque de Demain in Paris and amazed the acrobatic world with brilliant performances that won the top prize-the President of the Repubiic of France Awrd. ln ensuing years, they captured the same in the Eighth (1981 ) through 12th (1987) Festival international du Cirque Monte-Carlo in Monaco, with three Chinese acrobatic acts winning the first prize known as the Clown d'Or Chinese acrobats won four medals, in their debut at the 1985 Tenth Circus World Championships in London and won 22 of 25 medals, including the Blackpool Trophy for highest scoring performance and the team championship in the following year at the 11 the World Acrobatics Championships. The unique performances presented by Cbinese acrobats showed the brilliant charm of Eastern Culture and won the admiration of foreign critics who praised China as the world's No.1 country for acrobatics.

China has continued to lead the world in acrobatic art throughout the 1990s. China's "Handstands on one Hand" by Fang Yuan and He Ying from Fujian Province and "Kicking Bowls from High Unicycles" by Xurenhua, Tana, Shandan and Toya from lnner Mongolia won gold medals at the 13th Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain and the Festival Mondial du Cirque de l'Avenir held between january 24-31, 1990. However, the most exciting item was "Juggling Spinning Rugs with Both Hands and Feet" by the six-year-old Little Grain of Rice from the Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe under the GuangZhou Military Command. (Fig. 2-8) The item captured the President of the Republic of France Award, the top prize, on two occasions at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris. Chinese acrobats won a number of awards during the 17th Festival International du Cirque Monte-Carlo in Monaco, including the Clown d'Or for their traditional "Double Bowl-Balancing Act." China has won the President of the Republic of France Award, the world's most coveted prize for acrobatics, a number of times. it has won the award for both group performances Such as "Rhapsody in Silver" by the reputed Guangzhou Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe and individual performances such as the beautiful and graceful "Rolling with Cups of Water" by Xu Meihua, a young woman from a small acrobatic troupe of Anqing, Anhui Province.

chinese acrobatics owes its success in international competition to its long history and unique creativity. Almost all prize-winning items in International competitions are traditional items which have gained increasing appeal over the past 40-odd years due to constantly improving techniques and adding new stunts. For example, five-time gold medal winner "Bowl Balancing" is a traditional item with roots stretChing back to the Han Dynaa'n some 2,000 years ago. Evidence of this can be found on a brick carving unearthed in a Han tomb in Nanyang County, Henan Province, which vividly shows "a figure balancing a stack of bowls on its head while standing on one hand." Celebrated acrobatic artist Xia Juhua transformed the traditional Chinese balancing act into a thrilling stunt in the 1950s by incorporating calisthenics in her performance. Xia bent her legs over her back and used her feet to move bowls resting on her head. Many breathtakingly ingenious acts have been developed on the basis of this particular foundation. The Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe created the item ',Rolling with Cups of Water" which features a performer balancing stacks of cups filled with water in both hands while continuously doing somersaults on a table only 1.5-meters wide. This was followed by the difficult "Double Bowl Balancing Act" by Wang Yimin and Liu Hongiun with the HangZhou ACrobatic Troupe, as well as the exciting "Two-Person Bowl-Balancing Act" by Wan Xianhui and her sister Wan Xiancun with the Hebei Acrobatic Troupe and "Three-Person Bowl Balancing Act" and "Kicking Bowls on the High Unicycle" designed by acrobats from Shanghai and Guangzhou. The ingeniously designed items which are not only closely related to the tradition of Chinese acrobatic art, but also show the artistic charm created by bringing the potential of the human body into full play have won great honor for China. Other items which have won top honors for China in international competitions and heibatics nation dominate in the art of acrobatics include "Balancing on a Stack of Chairs,-' "Plate Spinning," "Diabolo Play," lumping Through Hoops,-' "Spinning Meteor-Like Bulbs," "Lion Dance" and "Acrobatics on Leather Straps." Generations of Chinese acrobats have painstakingly developed the traditional items over the centuries. Chinese acrobatics boast a distinct national style and a unique tradition of constantly bringing forth new ideas in the art. Chinese acrobats won 85 gold and 65 silver medals in international competition over the 40-year period between 1957-1997. The award- winning items include improved traditional items Such as the "Lion Dance," jumping Through Hoops," "Plate Spinning," Feats on Leather Straps," "Diabolo Play," 'Juggling objects with the Feet," "Hand Tricks," "Spinning Bowls Filled with Water," "Bowl Balancing," "Martial Arts,""Jar Tricks," "Two People juggling Rugs with Their Feet" and "Riding on a Swing." They also include adaptations from other art forms and new items created on the basis of techniques learned from foreign countries, including the group performance "Rhapsody in Silver" which features techniques of gymnastics and modern dance and "Moming Exercise in the Shaolin Temple" by the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe. The latter item won the gold medal at the 11 th Festival Mondial dU Cirque de l'Avcoirin Paris in 1997 and "Cycling Tricks" by the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe took the Clown d'Or Award at the 21st Festival interational du Cirque Monte-Carlo in Monaco in 1997. Other items such as "Flying from Pole to Pole," "Kicking Bowls on a High Unicycle" and "Springboard Stunts by Women" also show techniques passed down by acrobats from various ethnic groups in China and acrobats from other countries. More than 60 Chinese acrobatic troupes have won either gold or silver medals, or both, in international competitions, including large troupes from Beijing, Shanghai, Tian)in, GuangZhou, Wuhan and various provinces, autonomous regions and military areas, as well as small troupes from Liaocheng in Shandong, Sichuan's Wanxian, Anhui's Anqing and Wuqiao in Hebei. Some 1,000 performers have performed award-winning items.

Mr.Dominique Mauclaire, sponsor of the Festival Mondisl du Capue de Demain who was then working on the Histoly ot the World's Circus, attended China's Fourth National Acrobatic Competition in 1995 and shortly thereafter wrote an article entitled "A List of the Wealth of China's Acrobatic Art." The Chinese version of the article appeared in the first issue of the Chinese journal of Acrobation and Magic in 1996.

Mauclaire's aFticle had this to say of Chinese acrobatics: "I recently had the honor of attending China's national acrobatic competition for the second time. The competition featured new items created by several dozen acrobatic troupes from various Chinese cities and provinces. I was surprised to find that Chinese acrobatics were continuing to make innovations while maintaining tradition. I watched 63 items performed by about 1,000 acrobats over one week and was very impressed by their incredible efforts to strive for the new." In another article entitled "If I were Chinese," Mr. Mauclaire put forward a number of very good viewpoints and suggestions concerning Chinese acrobatics: "if I were Chinese, I would first of all feel proud of the 2,000-year history of Chinese acrobatics and the new lease on life it has obtained through re forms introduced after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Chinese acrobatics can be rated amongst the world's best in terms of nimbleness, flexibility of the body, maintenance of equilibrium and various other aspects.

"If l were Chinese, l would fully trust the performances of young acrobatic aFtists under the age of 20. This is because I am fully confident that quite a few of children who begin to learn acrobatics at the age of six are likely to become good performers during their youth.

"If I were Chinese, l would appIaud the distribution of acrobatic troupes in China. More than 100 acrobatic troupes distributed in various provinces and large cities across the country accept talented children for systematic training. Many young trainees have trained under the guidance of veteran masters over the years and have blossomed into excellent artists whose skills are praised by the world audience. I like the idea of holding a national acrobatic competition once every four years. However, is there any way we can shorten the four-year interval? Doing so would enable acrobatic artists to better weed through the old to bring forth the new, as well as to break with old conventions and habits and to bring new talents to the forefront. The 1991 National Acrobatic Competition held in Wuhan obviously contributed to the promotion of high-altitude items among acrobatic troupes in China.

"If I were Chinese, I would bring the initiative of acrobatic artists into full play and encourage them to create new items, in addition to introducing new musical accompaniment and costumes. Whenever possible, some provincial acrobatic troupes with a considerable number of performers from ethnic minorities should make use of folk arts which have otherwise been forgotten. "If I were Chinese, l wouId be very pleased that China will soon build a modern circus in Wuhan to stage variety shows. Most people, however, fail to realize that theater stages are not ideal places for acrobatic performances" (Acrobatics and Magic,4th issue, 1992).

Chinese acrobatics owes all its achievements in international competition to the creative work of Chinese acrobatic artists and the Support of the State and people. Outstanding acrobatic artists are loved and held in esteem by the state and people, and are often received by State leaders. One of the photographs in this book shows President jiang Zemin, State Councilor Li Tieying and Guangdong Governor Xie Fei, meeting with acrobats from the Guangzhou Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe. (Fig.2-9) The troupe's winners of the Clown d'Or at the 17th Festival International du Cirque Monte-Carlo were also received by Prince Rainier of Monaco. The troupe also toured Germany and was received by German President von Weizsacker Chinese acrobatics also owes its success in the world arena to the assistance and encouragement from friendly personages from various countries, including Dominique Mauclaire.

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Historical Background
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.
Characteristics of Chinese Acrobatics
Chinese acrobatjcs ranks amongst the best in the world thanks to its long history, rich repertory and distinctive artistic characteristics. The artistic characteristics can be summarized as follows:
The Works of Famous Contemporary
Chinese acrobatics has scored brilliant achievements in international competition over the years. As a result, it has been eulogized as a mythical art by foreign audiences and China is regarded as a powerhouse in acrobatics. The many previously mentioned achievements have been closely linked with the long tradition of Chinese acrobatics and the unique creativity of Chinese acrobats in past centuries.

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