The Kaifeng Acrobatic Troupe offers a dazzling display of coordination. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Chinese acrobatics, called “variety art” (zaji) in Chinese, is one of the most widely viewed types of Chinese cultural performance. The acrobatic acts seen today are packaged for global consumption and are similar to the Western circus, but many of the acts have traditional roots and a long history unique to China.
The precise origin of acrobatics (zaji) in China is unknown, but historical records and ancient relics, such as relief carvings, show that acrobatics achieved imperial recognition no later than the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). In that era of constant warfare acrobatics that emphasized strength and agility developed in conjunction with the ruler’s encouragement of developing exceptional battle skills. Other acrobatic acts, such as walking on stilts and juggling, functioned as entertainment at village harvest celebrations. Other possible origins of acrobatics include shamanistic ritual, martial arts, and theater.
During the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) acrobatics that combined theatrical roles and athletic feats, often involving wrestling between men or with animals, was performed for the imperial court. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) acrobatics was an integral part of the “Hundred Entertainments,” a type of variety show that also included music, dance, martial arts, and magic.
The scholar and scientist Zhang Heng (78–139 CE) described in his “Ode to the Western Capital” an acrobatic theme show that was performed in the royal palace. The acts included balancing on a pole, walking on a rope, jumping through hoops, performing handstands, and performing the conjuring act “turning a fish into a dragon.” These acts are still performed today, although they have been modified for modern audiences.
Stone engravings that date back to the Han dynasty illustrate numerous types of acrobatic acts that showcased strength and agility, including juggling, handstands, and rope walking, and feats that involved poles, balls, barrels, carriages, and galloping horses. One relief shows an acrobat balancing on seven discs as three acrobats hang upside-down from a cross that is balanced on his head.
Due to the patronage of Han emperors, acrobatics was integrated into large-scale and extravagant performances, a tradition that lasted for years. The Silk Roads promoted cultural exchange with Persia (Iran) and the Roman Empire. Acrobatic shows were shown to foreign dignitaries and guests visiting China, and also performed for the Han court. In 108 BCE Emperor Wu Di hosted a royal show for visiting dignitaries, and a performer sent by the king of Parthia also performed for the emperor.
Acrobatic shows continued to be performed for the imperial court during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). Certain acts flourished, including acrobatic acts on horses, animal training, and pole climbing, in which an acrobat balances a pole on which many more acrobats are balanced. A poem written by Bai Juyi (772–846 CE) and a mural in the Dunhuang grottoes illustrate these performances.
During the Song dynasty (960–1279) acrobatic shows left the palace and entered the markets. Acrobatics was performed in town markets along with other types of performances, such as singing, storytelling, and drama. Juggling, in particular, flourished. Itinerant performers and professional acrobatics troupes and training schools also developed during this time.
The status of acrobatics decreased drastically during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912). Acrobatics became a performance art that was learned almost entirely through apprenticeship or that was passed down as a family business through the generations. Family troupes performed at markets or made their living by touring fairs and performing at public theaters. Despite the dedication needed to succeed as an acrobat, people who became acrobats, along with prostitutes and thieves, were classified as belonging to one of the nine unsavory professions.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Chinese acrobatics began gaining greater admiration from the West. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 the Chinese government paid more attention to acrobatics as a performance art and founded the China national Acrobatic Troupe in 1957.
Especially since the 1980s acrobatics have come to be viewed as representative of Chinese culture for people all over the world to admire. In October 1981 the China Acrobatic Arts Association was established. Formal training at academies has developed, and students begin their training at an early age. In an annual competition for the academies, acrobats representing troupes from all over China compete for medals. China now has over 120 acrobatic troupes and an estimated twelve thousand acrobats.
Acrobatics has played an important role in cultural exchanges between China and other nations. In the past thirty-five years Chinese acrobatic troupes have toured more than one hundred countries throughout the world. Since the 1990s acrobatics has become packaged as a complete theme show, with greater attention to choreography, music, costumes, lighting, and special effects. The troupe Beijing Acrobats debuted overseas in 1986, and the Chinese State Circus began touring Europe in 1992. In addition to acrobatics, the shows often include performances of kung fu, Beijing opera, and variations on the traditional dragon dance and lion dance. Chinese acrobatics is now featured in Las Vegas shows and Hollywood films.
In its emphasis on strength, balance, and agility, Chinese acrobatics is similar to its Western counterpart. In general, focus is placed on the head, waist, and legs. However, the conceptual basis, training techniques, and acrobatic practice are also influenced by China’s tradition of martial arts. Acrobats strive to appear calm and steady on the tightrope and to maintain balance between the light and heavy in feet-balancing acts. Another unique characteristic is the use of farming tools or household items as props, seen in the commonly performed acts of balancing vats on the head, twirling cups or saucers, and diving through hoops, as derived from the grain sieves used by farmers. Balancing acts with tables, chairs, and cycles are relatively new. Many acts are also tied to Chinese folk practices, such as the performance of the Chinese yo-yo, or diabolo. Contortion, in which the human body is dramatically flexed, is not unique to China but is a featured act in most Chinese acrobatic shows.
Source: Noble, Jonathan (2009). Acrobatics. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 6–8. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Juggling a fiery baton is one of the Kaifeng Acrobatic Troupe’s most spectacular acts. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
A Tajik acrobat performs outside a performance yurt in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.