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Chinese Acrobatics —— A Magic World Built by China Acrobats


 

Chinese Variety Art (zá jì,杂技), known well as Chinese acrobatics, is a traditional art with a long history and one of the most popular art forms among Chinese people. But what is Chinese acrobatics? In general, many supernormal skills in China are called by a joint name----acrobatics. A lot of acts in the acrobatics refined from life skills and wushu. For many years development, Chinese acrobatics created a school of her own style among the world acrobatics circle due to her bright and colorful spectacles, simple and unsophisticated features.
 
China acrobatics includes all kinds of skills like bare-handed rolling, reversing, pouncing and tumbling, nose balancing, foot skill, trick-cycling, buckjump, changeable and magical tricks, as well as circus and beast training. Unique clown funny performance is also a very important content of modern Chinese acrobatics. At the end of Qing Dynasty, Chinese acrobatics spread overseas and enjoyed good reputation all over the world. Recently, Chinese acrobatics actors have won many international awards in succession which strengthened China as the first acrobatics country in the world.
 
The development of Chinese Acrobatics

The history of China acrobatics can be almost traced back to Neolithic times. It is said that Chinese acrobatics comes from primitive men’s labor and self-defense skills which developed in the hunting. When they celebrated big harvest or success in capturing, they happily performed those outstanding skills for fun. Hence the rudiment of Chinese acrobatics went on the stage of the history. At the very beginning of primitive art, acrobatics was closely related to music and dance, and gradually became a dominant art performance at that time.

In the spring and autumn and warring states period(770BC—221BC), acrobatics was called Jiaodi Drama (jiǎo dǐ xì角抵戏, a drama that composed with a variety of acts such as: wrestling, dance, juggling sword, horsemanship and martial arts) was very popular among the ordinary people. In 300 BC, skills of walking on 3-metre high stilts and juggling 7 daggers at a time had performed.
After Emperor Qin united the other six countries, Qin’s Drama incorporated the advantages of other countries’ Jiaodi Drama together and formed a new acrobatic entertainment, but still kept the same name. Later, it was introduced to the royal palaces from folk society.
 
 
a painting of spinning plates from a tomb of Han Dynasty

statues of Jiaodi Drama in the Western Han Dynasty


In Han Dynasty, Jiaodi Drama enriched contents and advanced skills, and developed into a variety show of various music-dance acrobatics. Some acts such as handstands, walking on the rope, dancing fishing dragon, climbing poles, fighting with animals, and so on, were in fashion at that time. According to the historical material, in order to brag the affluence and vastness, Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty decided to hold a grand banquet in the spring of 108BC. During the gathering, a grand acrobatic show was unveiled. Besides domestic Jiaodi Drama, acrobat overseas also brought their adept programs. No doubt, foreign lands (such as the place of today’s Alexandria in Egypt), their unique skills prompted the development of Han’s acrobatics. Meanwhile, like silk, tea and Chinese Ceramics, Chinese acrobatics became known worldwide through the Silk Road. In the Eastern Han Dynasty, a new art performance system named Baixi(bǎi xì百戏) was formed.
 

Baixi---a name for all the folk art forms in ancient time, especially acrobatics


In the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), arts communication was very frequent between ethnics. Chinese acrobatics at that time embraced everything that was useful.
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), acrobatics flourished both in the royal palace and folk society. Generally speaking, Tang’s acrobatics was not as magnificent as Han’s, and some shows in the Jiaodi and Baixi even were eliminated, such as dancing fishing dragon. But those preserved programs were developed tremendously and became more elaborate, such as horsemanship and beast training. Compared with Han’s, many unprecedented excellent skills were appeared. In the miscellanea of Emperor Ming of Tang Dynasty (wrote by Zhen Chuhui in Tang Dynasty), a Kabuki Madam Wang was recorded. During her performance, she carried a pole with a wooden hill on the head. Moreover, a child was dancing on that hill. Besides royal family and relatives could appreciate acrobatics in the conviviality, common people also could see acrobatics in marching in the honor guard of prominent officials and eminent personages, For example, you could find a mural proof in An Outing Painting of the Lady of the Song in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottos.
 
 

juggling four swords at a time

juggling monkey----a popular act until 1990's


In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), acrobatics moved back from royal palace to the folk society, and the performing form and contents also changed a lot. Some programs full of real life flavor were excluded out of the royal court because of the emergence of Cheng's and Zhu Xi's idealist philosophy. Therefore, most of the acrobatic acts entered into brothels. Due to these change, big scale acts displaying of splendor disappeared, on the contrary, variety small scale acts came into being, like individual performance. Some series acts focusing on proficient hand skills in the ancient tricks were developed even more perfect. In addition, professional acrobatic team and training center also appeared.

After Song Dynasty, the social position of acrobatics went from bad to worse. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), acrobats came down to itinerant entertainers while acrobatics such as juggling became into a humble performance art. When traditional Chinese opera formed, some stunts such as suddenly turn hostile, spiting fire in the acrobatics were taken by some dramas, especially Chuan Drama.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), classical dancing was despised, sharing the same fate, the embarrassing situation of acrobatics did not change too much, and most performers performed on the street for living. Individual performance and acrobatics inherited by generations have strived for further improvement, such as flying forks, plying jars, jumping through hoops, playing spinning, etc. Qing’s acrobats always formed a small group based on family and Showed acrobatic skills in open spaces. Some unique skills in former dynasties still carried on by generations and kept on improving.
In the beginning and middle of 20th century, acrobats were still looked down upon as humble professional. 
 

Spinning plates

Dou Kongzhu(Chinese Yo-yo)

Balancing skills

many people on a bike


Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Chinese acrobatics regained respectability. Many acrobatic troupes have been established all over the country. Some metropolis even built special theaters for the performance of acrobatics. As a simple art performance, Chinese acrobatics tried to find sparks from ancient time. Music and dance came back, and lighting and stage elements were added. To make sure these historical skills can be passed down; China established two art schools especially for acrobatics: Wuqiao Acrobatic School and Beijing Acrobatic School. Now, Chinese acrobatics was very prosperous both at home and abroad.

Chinese Earliest Acrobatics

Boomerang is recognized as the Chinese earliest acrobatics in the academic world of acrobatics. This cross hunting equipment made of wood chip was used to attack fowls and beasts by hunters in the primitive tribes. During many times’ throwing, they found different cross even could convolute under the influence of the wind. Therefore, it became a must performance in the clan’s grand meeting. Later, acrobatic actors put some art elements into the act which formed popular artful program. Until today, it is still an adorable act in audiences’ hearts.

Features of Chinese Acrobatics

Chinese acrobatics absorbs abundant art forms from traditional Chinese opera, dancing and Wushu. Nowadays, Chinese acrobatic performances are attracting many audiences from Europe and North America. Because, as an interactive art form, Chinese acrobatics is different from Peking opera, there are no languages or cultural barrier when you try to appreciate it.
Below are some features of Chinese acrobatics which will help audiences to know how to appreciate Chinese acrobatics:

1. Paying more attention to the training of waist, legs and head feats. Most of them have solid base of Wushu.
2. Pursuing stability during danger and quietness from actions. E.g. wire walking.
3. Producing some strange things from ordinary costumes or simple props, and reflect Chinese philosophy: creating something out of   nothing. For instance, an acrobat can conjure many objects from a piece of cloth when he only wears a long gown.
4. Being capable in both heavy and light, hard and soft skills. From heavy things like wine jars, tables, ladders, living person to light stuff like silk umbrellas and colorful rugs, Chinese acrobats can juggle them freely with feet.
5. Combining super physical strength and deft somersault skills. In a modern classical act, an old acrobat carries four stone barbells and juggles seven or eight person at the same time.
6. Using life appliances (e.g. plates, jars) and tools as props;
7. Having good adaptability.
All these art features compose the distinctive enchantment of Chinese acrobatics.

Life of a Chinese Acrobat:

One minute on the stage needs ten years of practice off the stage. Before a top-ranking acrobatic program being performed in public, it always needs acrobats with excellent techniques.
In order to be a competent acrobat, trainees are forced to practice some basic skills when they are only 6 or 7 years old. Handsprings are one of the basic skills in acrobatics. Apart from handsprings, somersaults, headstands, flexibility of waist and leg are also required to many practices. Practicing from dawn to dark, day after day, for three or four years, then they can go to the stage with many old injuries; not mentioned the new risks on the stage. Most acrobats will be eliminated when they are over 20.If the master can not find a good apprentice to carry on the unique technique; his stage life will be longer.
At present, many parents are unwilling to send their only child to acrobatic troupe because of the hard training. So some excellent retired physical jerks athletes will be choices for acrobatic troupe.

Hometown of Chinese Acrobatics-------Wuqiao County

There was a prominent phenomenon during 20th century in China that many hometowns of acrobatics sprung up, for instance, Wuqiao County in Hebei Province, Liaocheng in Shandong Province and Yancheng in Jiangsu Province. But Wu Qiao earned more reputation obviously. Many famous Chinese acrobats were cultivated here.
When you travel Wuqiao, you will find any one in the street can give you a good acrobatic show although he is  not professional enough. Because there is a saying”Any one living in Wu Qiao is good at acrobatics, no matter he is a 99-year-old man or a baby who just learns how to walk”.
The history of Wuqiao’s acrobatics is very long. Some acrobatics images like scorpion crawling, belly sustaining and equestrianism are described on a local mural of Eastern Wei Dynasty (almost 1500 years ago).
In modern times, like Wenzhou people doing business, Wu Qiao people almost traveled everywhere in the world so that a new saying comes out“No Wu Qiao people, no acrobatic troupe”.

Famous Acrobatic Troupe and Acrobatic Shows in China

Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe       Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe     Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe        Beijing Acrobatic Troupe

When you are traveling in Shanghai, we can arrange a Chinese Acrobatics and Shanghai Evening Tour  for you. 

 
 


 

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