Nov 10, 2013

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Acrobatics is a performance art that combines physical strength and skill. The Encyclopedia 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 theWarring States Period(475-221BC) during the third century BC, with acrobats proficient at juggling seven daggers while manipulating 3-meter stilts.
Acrobatic performances are vividly depicted in brick paintings and stone engravings dating back to theHan Dynasty(206BC-220AD). Various works depict acrobats performing hand tricks such as juggling with swords, balls, 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 of Southwest China'sSichuan Provinceportrays three acrobats -- one performing handstands atop 12 stacked tables; another dancing on drums; and a third juggling balls. A point well worth mentioning is that modern acrobatic performances continue to feature high-altitude handstands.

A stone engraved with Bai xi tu that was discovered in a Han tomb in Yinan County of East China'sShandong Province, provides a vivid picture of ancient Chinese acrobats performing in a circus. The work entitled Variety 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 in simultaneously balancing the cross and avoiding seven plates placed at his feet.

Part two shows an orchestra of 15 musicians playingchime stones, bells, jian-drums, zithers (a kind of stringed instrument), xun (an egg-shaped wind instrument), and panpipes.

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, juggling tridents (three-pronged spears). The latter is a majestic demonstration of acrobatic performances featuring imitations of laop fish (define what laop means), 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 performed in modern China.

Characteristics of Chinese Acrobatics

Chinese acrobatics ranks among the best in the world thanks to its long history, rich repertory, and distinctive artistic characteristics. The artistic characteristics can be summarized as follows:

First, Chinese acrobatics has long stressed the basic training of the waist and legs, and has attached great importance to the skill of standing on the head and hands as evidenced by many Han Dynasty brick paintings, murals, and pottery figurines that feature headstands, handstands, and somersaults. Performers of traditional magic were required to have good acrobatic skills. Otherwise, the fact that they were usually clad in a loose gown concealing scores of objects weighing as much as 100 pounds would have prevented them from doing somersaults while producing objects like bowls filled with water or blazing metal bowls.

Second, Chinese acrobatics is characterized by feats of strength and daring performed cleverly, precisely, and accurately, and the ability of retaining balance in motion. The ability of Chinese acrobats to perform rope-dancing stunts on a stack of benches placed on a plank and building pyramids on a free-standing ladder shows their superb skills at stabilizing themselves and retaining their balance in motion --- skills that require years of hard training and skills that reflect human's spirit of braving hardships and danger.

Third, the traditional form of conjuring known as ancient splendor, which flourished during the Han and Tang (618-907) dynasties, seems to create something from nothing. The difference between Western magic and traditional Chinese magic is that the former conjurers stress stage sets, lighting, and sound effects, while their Chinese counterparts, whther than emphasizing stage design, use only limited props and instead hide most of objects needed beneath their loose gowns. Therefore, high-level skill and physical strength is needed for the Chinese conjurers to handle the hidden objects.

They are able to produce a wide range of objects from their loose gowns, including enough dishes for an 18-course dinner, as well as live fish and birds. In addition, they can even conjure a blazingbronzefire pan from their gowns immediately after one somersault and a large glass container filled with water and fish after the next. The art of conjuring is an expression of human's wisdom and reflects the desire to create material and spiritual wealth, as well as aspirations for a happy life.

Traditional Chinese magic has a sizable repertoire known for its superb skill, with The Immortal Growth Beans, Auspicious Abundance, and A Chain of Rings accepted as masterpieces by the world's magic circles.

Fourth, Chinese acrobats can juggle both light and heavy objects with dexterity, particularly with their feet (especially by females lying on a special platform). The artists manipulate a variety of objects ranging from wine buckets,porcelainjars, tables, ladders, poles, planks, drums, and gongs to silkumbrellas and people weighing more than 100 pounds. They can also turn heavy items like wooden tables and slippery porcelain jars so fast that one can barely recognize the object being juggled.

Acrobats in the past showed their techniques by juggling heavy objects. Today, however, they stress both light and heavy objects. Acrobats juggling light objects such aspaperumbrellas or colored rugs must have a good understanding of the buoyancy and resistance of the air beforehand to perform well.

Acrobats practicing jar tricks often lose a patch of hair due to the fact that heavy jars thrown high typically land on the same spot. However, their hair will grow back once they gain skill in landing jars on their heads with the slightest effort.

Traditional conjurers must undergo hard training before they can skillfully manipulate hundreds of pounds of objects hidden beneath their loose gowns. The new item Beating Gongs and Drums in which acrobats juggle and play percussion instruments simultaneously has raised the art of juggling to a new level. The spirit of continually forging ahead characteristic of acrobatic artists has provided great encouragement to mankind.

Fifth, Chinese acrobatics features the combination of great physical strength and quick and nimble somersaults. It requires an unusual amount of physical strength on the part of the performer supporting a pyramid, as theTang Dynastyacrobat who, records indicate, balanced a long pole on his head while 18 people performed aerial stunts.

A lacquer painting on a bow dating from the Tang Dynasty, which is now housed in Japan as a national treasure, shows a man supporting a long pole on his head with six people performing aerial stunts. A contemporary veteran acrobat showed great strength by using his hands and feet to lift four stone barbells and eight people weighing over 1000 pounds.

Other items such as Drawing Strong Bows and Wielding a Heavy, Long-shaft Broadsword also require unusual physical strength.

The Complete Set of Martial Arts Routines is perhaps a typical item of traditional Chinese acrobatics that combines great physical strength and nimble somersaults. Acrobats in the performance sometimes resemble fish swimming effortlessly in the water, sometimes like swallows drafting through trees and other times like butterflies dancing gracefully among flowers. Related acts fully demonstrate the skills of combining physical strength and somersaults to perfection.

Sixth, Chinese acrobatics, an art form closely related to people's production and daily-life activities, uses labor tools and objects as props, including bowls, plates, jars, cups, ropes, whips, poles, ladders, tables, chairs, umbrellas, and hats. Some items are based on production activities, folk games, and sports such as lassoing horses or cattle, driving carts, and skipping rope.

Seventh, Chinese acrobatics employs a number of beautiful traditional handicrafts as stage props, including porcelain jars and plates decorated with colorful designs of dragons and phoenixes, and tastefully patterned silk umbrellas and rugs. Related props not only make the performance more appealing, but also display the beauty of traditional Chinese handicrafts.

Eighth, Chinese acrobatics is noted for its flexibility in terms of the size of performance venues and the number of performers. Performances can be staged in squares and theaters, on the streets, and even in small living rooms. The number of performers required can vary from a single person to as many as 100 people. The great flexibility of Chinese acrobatics has enabled the art form to mature and develop a fine tradition through the ages.

Finally, Chinese acrobatics has maintained a strict master-apprentice system and has been closely related to other forms of the performing arts. Chinese acrobatics is an art that was handed down from one generation of a family to another, as well as from master to apprentice. Some Chinese localities are celebrated for acrobatics. For example,WuqiaoCounty in North China'sHebei Provinceis often referred to as the home of Chinese acrobatics.

Acrobats have long respected their masters and loved their profession. They have done their best to preserve the art learned from masters and hand their skills down to younger generations. Acrobats in the old society led miserable lives, but never treated their profession lightly. Instead, they managed to pass their skills onto the right people and would rather die of hunger than pass their skills onto an outsider in a rash moment.

Acrobatic performances through the ages have incorporated the many strong points of other performing arts such as traditional opera, dance, and martial arts, and have in return provided the latter with inspiration.

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