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Acrobatic Artists

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.

The First and Second Variety Show Awards

In August 1991, the Chinese Acrobats Assocjation decided to establish the Variety Show Award, the highest award for artists who have made important contributions which have helped Chinese acrobatics move onto the world stage. The name of the award was derived from the fact that acrobatic performances were popularly known as variety shows during the golden ages of the Han and Tang periods. Presentation ceremonies for the First Variety Show Award were held on September 12, 1992, during the Wuhan international Acrobatic Festival. Nine Outstanding Chinese acrobatic artists nationwide were selected as the. highest award winners following repeated deliberations. Seven famous acrobats were selected as winners of the Second Variety Show Award in April 1995. In addition, Stick Ashim, a veteran acrobat from the Uygur ethnic group, and two colIeagues were presened. the award upon the recommendation of the appraisal committee.

Fifteen of l9 winners of the Variety Show Award were first-class national artists. The list included Xia juhua, Sun Tai, Zhou Yunpeng, Wang Junwu, Jin Yeqing, Pan Sumei, Deng Bao jin, Zhang Yingiie, Ning Gengiu, He Tianchong, Chen Liben, Guo QingIi, Zhao Fengqi, Cheng Haibao and Stick Ashim. The aforementioned aFtists served as a link between the past and future, and made great contributions to blazing new trails in the art and training young Chinese artists. The remaining four Wang Feng, Lan Tian, Aliang and Wang Songsheng led acrobatic troupes for long periods and contributed greatly to research on acrobatics, choreography and organizational work.

The following stories concern Stick Ashim and Deng Bao jin, the oldest and youngest of the l9 award-winners:

Stick Ashim, a well-known Xinjiang acrobatic artist from the Uygur ethnic group, devoted himself to the art of high altitude tightrope walking for more than 70 years. Stick, a fifth generation artist, inherited the feats of skill and daring associated with the folk art in Xinjiang. His performances were characterized as innovative, breathtaking, extremely difficult and full of local color.

During the War of Resistance AgainstJapan (1937-1945) and the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid North Korea (1950-1953), he led a troupe on a tour of areas located north and south of the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang. The troupe donated a sizable portion of the proceeds from their performances to support the war efforts of the Chinese people. The effort won Stick Ashim the praise of people from various nationalities throughout the country.

The State Commission for Traditional Sports invited him to participate the First, Second and Third Sports Meets for NationaIities. He received numerous citations from the Chinese government and the government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and enjoyed the support of all the ethnic groups in the region. Stick Ashim was a deserving representative of acrobatic artists from China's minority nationalities.

Deng Baojin, the youngest winner of the Variety Show Award, began to learn acrobatics at an age much older than other artists. Chinese acrobats generally enter training between the ages of six to seven years old. Deng was born into a family of folk artists. Her grandfather, Deng Jiuru, was a master of Shandong qinshu (story-telling mainiy in sjnging with musical accompaniment). in spite of growing up in a family of folk artists, Deng was not exposed to the art of acrobatics until I972 when she applied for admission as a trainee at the jinan Acrobatic Troupe at the age of 14. She was somewhat too old to apply for the position and thus opinions concerning her admission were divided. However, the chief examiner believed in her potential and made an exception.

She trained hard under teachers from the jinan Acrobati Troupe, with training sessions often lasting 15 hours per day Teachers and other trainees all marveled at the progress she made in a little more than one year She made her successful debut in a performance of "Handstands on Stacked Chairs" and became the first of the troupe's trainees to appear on the stage. In 1976, teachers recommended her as a member of the acrobatic troupe representjng Shandong at the largest acrobatic festhal sponsored by the Ministry of Culture since the founding of the People's Republic. The goal of the festival was to provide opportunities for acrobats from different parts of the country to be seen and learn from each other, as well as to Summarize experiences and promote the development of acrobatics. Deng attended the festival and not only performed "Handstands on Stacked Chairs," but also performed together with her colleagues the routine "Handstands on Poles" and other stunts on chairs balanced in djfferent configurations.

Deng and her colleagues participated in the First National Acrobatic Competition sponsored by the Ministry of Culture in 1984 and won a siiver medal for their presentation of"juggling Benches with the Feet," an item choreographed by Bi Changiiang. Their achievement was the best in history recorded by jinan acobats performing in national acrobatic competition. Deng also performed the same year in Beijing to celebthe the 35th anniversary of the founding of the people's Republic of China. in 1986 and 1987, Deng and her colleagues won respective gold medals for their "juggling Benches with the Feet" performed at the 11th Circus World Championships in London and the Festival Mondial du Cirpue de Oemain in Paris. Their achievements brought credit to China.

Deng Baojin has won acclaim with performances in more than 20 countries.The foreign mass media has praised her performances and cited her as a world-class artist Public figures in various countries have offered liberal compensation packages in attempts to convince Deng to remain in their nations. However, according to Deng, "I was nurtured by China.l feel proud to win honors and must continue to serve my motherland." Deng has been selected as a national model worker, an exemplary literary and art worker and a March Ejghth red-banner pacesetter She has also won the May Day Labor Medal and many titles of honor presented by the Shandong provincial goVernment andjinan municipal government. Following Xia juhua and Yang Xiaoting, she was elected as a deputy to the National People's Congress in 1998.

The National New Bud Cup Acrobatic Competition

in 1987, the Ministry of Cuiture decided to hold a National New Bud Cup Acrobatic Competition. Participants in the competition were junior acrobats under the age of 17. This decision sparked a nationwide surge to train young acrobats. T

he ministry sponsored the First National New Bud Cup Acrobatic Competition in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, on November 19,1988. The competition attracted the participation of 175 teenagers, the oldest of whom was 17 and youngest six.A number of medalists at the competition soon moved onto the world stage and brought credit to China. For example, 16-year-old Xu Meihua won a gold medal for her "Rolling with Cups of Water" Thereafter, Xu consistently improyed her skills with the help of teacher Li Yanyan and veteran acrobat Xia juhua. As a result, she performed the item in France in the l990s and won the President of the Republic of France Award for China.

the competition provided teenage acrobats an excellent opportunity to share skill.some of the participants had traveled extensively and performed abroad, while others had never before left their hometowns. Three of four participants from Shanghai had made their debut appearances abroad and it was the first time for the 13 contestants from Shanxi Province to perform outside their home province. The compotition left an indelible impression on the young participants and they all returned home with many happy recollections.

Experts attending the competition discussed approaches on how to train young acrobats. While China had established some circus schools prior to the competition, how to train performers and develop teaching materials remained an open question. Therefore, discussions between experts during the competition would prove to be of great significance.

The Second National New Bud Cup Acrobatic Competition held in Zunyi, Guizhou Province, and acrobatic competitions held nationwide in ensuing years provided good conditions enabling acrobats to learn and emulate each other, while at the same time adding new creations to repertoires and training young performers.
Some 120 new items were created by the end of 1996, with more than 600 acrobats winning awards at home and over 400 acrobats winning gold medals in international competitions.

Famous Acts and Performers

lnnovations Introduced to "Plate Spinning".

Chinese acrobatics has gained increasing prosperity since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Chinese acrobats have not only won prizes for China in international competition over the years,but have also raised their technical levels to new plateaus. For example, " plate Spinning', is a traditional acrobatic item which dates back to the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. Performers traditionally manipulated one plate with a long stick, with no changes in the routine for centuries. However, in the 1950s, actors from the acrobahc troupe under the General Political Department of the Chinese PCople's Liberation Army introduced a new routine in which they spun 10 plates with both hands while accomplishing various stunning body movements' Their Superb performances amazed acrobatic circies both at home and abroad, and in turn won numerous top prizes. Generally speaking, people at that time believed the per formance genre had reached its limits of development. However, in the 1980s,"plate Spinning" performed by the Zhejiang Acrobatic Troupe broke new ground when an actress spun 12 plates with both hands while doing a headstand on a rubber ball. in other routines, a young performer spun plates with her hands while doing a headstand on the head of another female performer. She then turned her body 180 degrees using her head as the fulcrum and ended by dismounting with a backward somersault. She also did a one-handed handstand on the head of the other actress while spinning plates with the other hand.

However, the most stunning performance of "Plate Spinning" featured one female performer supporting a plahorm in her teeth while spinning 12 plates. Another performer standing on the platform spun three plates with each hand, bent her body backwards and used her teeth to grab a bouquet from a steel frame placed below the platform. The precipitous and fantastic performance attracted the admiration of audiences. Performances usually ended with the actress tossing 12 spinning plates into the air and letting them crash to the stage to prove they were genuine porcelain plates. Artists from the Zhejiang Acrobatic Troupe performed there "Plate Spinning" routine and won the President of the Republic of France Award, the top prize at the Sixth Festival Mondinal du Cirque de Demain in Paris in july 1983.The Dalian and Chinese Acrobatic Troupes improved the technical aspects of the routine and added new stunts. In a soiree known as the "Charm of Chinese Culture," the Chinese Acrobatic Troupe presented a program of new acrobatic acts and dances. in a performance which reflected acrobatics during the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, one actress performed the feat of balancing a long pole on her head while several other performers spun plates during aerial stunts. The elegant, difficult and breathtaking performance left an indelible impression on the audience.

Solo Bowl Balancing by Xia juhua and Li Liping

in 196o,Xiajuhua, an outstanding actress with the Wuhan Acrobatic Troupe, introduced soft art in a stunt which involved using her feet to carry bowls. (Fig.2-30)A short time later, in 1963, she astonished audiences by bending her legs over her back, grasping bowls resting on her head and bringing the same forward. Twenty years later, in December 1983, Li Liping, a young actress with the Wuhan Acrobatic Troupe, performed the same to a thrilled audience at the Ninth Festival International du Cirpue Monte-Carlo in Monaco. While lying on her back on a round table, Li used her foot to lift a pile of colorful patterned porcelain bowls by gently raising her hip while performing several 360 degree rolls in quick succession. The bowls remained in place as if glued to the sole of foot. She won the Clown d'Or for the performance and wrote the first chapter in Successful Chinese acrobatic competition in Monte Carlo. Li, a fourth-generation acrobat, is highly skiIled in solo bowl balancing. The act involving quick rolls with dramatic turns is the act often seen in Chinese dance and opera known as "twisting on an imaginary pillar like a dragon." Li Successfully incorporated the routine in her art to make it more thrilling and graceful.

The Evolution from 'jum ping Through a Narrow Path" Dating Back to the Han Dynasty to ']umping Through Hoops on the Ground" Performed by the Guangzhou Acrobatic Troup

Han Dynasty acrobats rolled straw mats into tubes which they lined with sharp knives and proceeded to jump through the tubes in a routine called "jumping Through a Narrow Path." Tang Dynasty acrobats jumped through a hoop lined with swords in a routine known as "Passing Through a Sword Gate." Following the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, however, the Tang Dynasty routine "Passing Through a Sword Gate" was transformed into "jumping Through Hoops on the Ground," a routine in which knives were removed from the hoops and jumping techniques were emphasized. The most skilled Chinese acrobats performing the stunt are from the Guangzhou Acrobatic Troupe. The acrobats resemble swallows as they fly back and forth through hoops a mere 10 centimeters wider than their bodies. Four hoops one atop the other rise 2.15 meters above the ground and require acrobats to perform intricate body movements while leaping high in the air The most exciting part is when an acrobat twists his body 360 degrees while flying through the hoop. People consider their performances as"an art which challenges gravity." The routine "Jumping Through Hoops on the Ground" performed by acrobats from the GuangZhou Acrobatic Troupe won the President of the Republic of France Award at the Seventh Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain held in Paris in january 1984, as well as a gold medal at the Tenth Circus World Championships held in London in November 1985.

Juggling Objects with the Feet

Rural variety shows featuring jugglers manipulating bottles, plates and jars with their feet appeared during the Song Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago.The performances evolved in the modern routine known as "juggling objects with the Feet" which involves objects of varying weight,both heavy and light.Young actress Wang Hong performs a new routine in which she simultaneously switches two umbrellas from foot to foot, an act previously performed by two acrobats. Wang has also introduced a routine in which she manipulates four spinning rugs. The routine involves spinning one rug in each hand and one on each foot, and shifting them from one limb to another Yet another innovation in her performance involves an abrupt shift from lying on her back to a handstand without interrupting the juggling routine.

"juggling Benches with the Feet" by Lu Xinli and Shen Ning is a routine categorized as juggling heavy objects. (Fig.2-31)Shen assumes a reclining position on a small table and balances a stack of 11 benches on her feet. The stack of benches stands eight meters in height and weighs over 100 kilograms. Shen securely balances the benches and at the same time uses her feet to juggle the "pagoda of benches" through two rotations before transferring the load to only one foot. Lu XinIi performs different types of handstands on top of the benches. The performance becomes increasingly novel and more difficult as the number of benches increases. Lu performs at a height of eight meters once the 11th bench is placed atop the pagoda. The routine climaxes with Lu stretching both arms while resting herself upside down on an iron flower gripped in her teeth. Lu and Shen won the Clown d'Or at the Tenth Festival international du Cirque Monte-Carlo in December 1984. They also won widespread audience acclaim for their Superb skill and the strong national flavor of the routine.

Artists Deng Bao jin,Meng Yan, Song Lihua and Yao Zhijiang with the jinan Acrobatic Troupe introduced a new feature to the performance. The acrobat on the bottom combines turning, rolling and swaying with juggling which makes the benches appear to be "live objects." Acrobats on the benches perform elegant, difficult and thrilling routines. The team won a gold medal at the 11th Circus World Championships in London in December 1986.

"Rhapsody in Silver"

The Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe under the Guangzhou Military Command won awards for "jumping Through Hoops on the Ground," "Diabolo Playing" and "Two-Person Pole Climbing" in international competition during the 1980s. During the 1990s, the troupe captured the Clown d'or for its "Two-Person Bowl Balancing Act" performed at the 17th Festival International du Cirque Monte-Carlo, as well as the President of the Republic of France AWard for"juggling Rugs with the Feet"at the Fourth Festiva Mondial du Capue de I'Avenir and the President of the Republic of France Award for "Big Springboard Stunts by Women" at the 15th FestivalMondial du Copue de DemAn. In addition, the troupe's "Minor Martial Arts" was awarded the top prize at both the Second National Teenage Acrobats Cup Competition and the Tenth Guinness Acrobatic Competition for Teenagers in Monaco, as well as a gold medal for "Bucket Penetration" at the Sixth Road-of-Hope Competition in Belgium and the "Award for Gifted Teenagers" in ltaly. "Rhapsody in Silver, "which isperhaps one of the best routines created by the troupe in recent years, won a gold medal at a competition in Paris in january 1995. The troupe also won the Princess Christina Cup, the top prize, at the first World Acrobatics Festival and Circus for Women in Stockholm in April 1995 and the first prize at the Fourth National Acrobatic Competition held in Shenyang in September the same year.

The Guangzhou Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe created "Rhapsody in Silver"(Fig.2-32) to celebrate the convening of the Fourth World Congress for Women held in Beijing in 1995. The collective act, based on traditional acrobatic art, includes various movements similar to those in gymnastics. Performers must possess good jumping and balancing skills, as well as exceptional leg and waist strength and excellent handstand techniques. Generally speaking, this particular routine was performed by men of great strength, with only one young lightweight female acrobat involved in the performance. The routine consists of a series of highly difficult movements which show the unlimited potential of man's strength and ability and reflects their lofty sentiment and the spirit of constantly forging ahead.

However,"Rhapsody in Silver" performed entirely by female acrobats with the Soldiers Acrobatic Troupe features such highly difficult movements. For example, eight acrobats execute a Succession of double reverse somersaults while keeping their bodies straight Two acrobats grasp hands after one completes two and a half somersaults and the other one and a half somersaults. The routine includes a four-person pyramid with the acrobat on top performing a handstand on only one hand. The routine also includes acrobats performing quadruple somersaults while maintaining straight bodies. One acrobat performs a one and a half forward somersault prior to landing in the hands of another performer The latter throws the former into the air three times prior to completion of the somersault routine. The act not only show that women have entered a field once dominated by men, but also show the addition of feminine beauty to muscular activity "Rhapsody in Silver"is a highly difficult act which reflects the human desire to Surpass previous achievements,break free from confinement on the earth and fly into the immense starry sky and space. The act we see today has undergone five revisjons. "Rhapsody in Silver", a routine famous for its difficult skills, artistic integrity and rich philosophy, has won numerous awards in international competition and has won the acciaim of audiences worldwide. it has attained a high level of artistry by perfectly integrating highly difficult acrobatic skills with graceful dance movements. The combination of excellent stage design, jighting, musical accompaniment, costumes and spotlights and stars in the immense sky enables the routine to break from the practice of simply striving for the effect of merry dance and music.

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