Stilt walking, or maneuvering while on stilts, is a popular traditional performance art for the Han ethnic people, especially in Northern China. The shows are performed by stilt walkers who each have 2 long stilts tied to their feet, making them taller than everyone else around them. The spectacle is especially a delight for children and families. These performances can usually be seen during important festivals and events such as the Spring Festival and the Lantern Festival.
With a history dating back many centuries, the art of stilt walking has slowly developed into one of the most important folk dances in China. As well, it has evolved into various distinctive forms in different places in China. The most popular destinations today for viewing and experiencing stilt walking performances are the cities of Beijing, Shanxi, and Shandong.
The Origin of Stilt Walking
One folk legend about the origin of stilt walking says that a foreign ambassador of the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 B.C.), Yan Ying, went one day to visit his neighboring kingdom. Because he was short, Yan Ying was often laughed at by the officials of that kingdom. So, he tied 2 stilts on his feet to make himself taller than normal people. By walking with the stilts, he spoke sarcastically to those who had been laughing at him. After that, the tradition of stilt walking spread to the common citizens, and people turned the skill into a dance to celebrate large events and festivals.
Another popular legend says that stilt performances were influenced by fishermen in coastal villages who used this technique to catch fish with sharp sticks.
The stilts are mostly made of wood with a support point in the middle partition which can be used as a standing platform by the performers. Stilt walking requires a high degree of skill and the walkers must be brave enough to get around with merely 2 lanky rods tied to their feet. They need to practice a lot to learn to be steady while walking, and to perform more beautiful movement patterns, they need to be even more exceptionally skillful. Stilt walkers also tend to perform operas shows in different roles, so they wear different costumes and makeup while perched up high.
Stilt walking performances can be divided into a gentle style (Wenqiao) and valiant style (Wuqiao). The gentle style stresses a graceful appearance and delightful amusement, while the valiant style is more like a kind of acrobatics which emphasizes particular unique skills. Stilt walking also takes different forms depending on the style and themes of the events. During large gathering events, the gentle style of stilt walking is mostly employed for the mass enjoyment of people of all ages and backgrounds. The valiant style, then, is usually seen outstandingly on stage, such as during the Opening Ceremony of 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.