Chinese Acrobatics

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 23, 2021

Chinese acrobatics has a long history. According to historical records and objects – relief carvings on ancient tombs, stone carvings, and brick carvings, murals in temples and grottoes, decorative patterns on utensils- Chinese acrobatics had already reached a high standard as a performing art by the Western Han Dynasty.

Examples show that the long history of Chinese acrobatics provided a solid foundation for today’s performers.

Pottery Acrobat Figurines – This is a set of pottery figurines performing on the acrobatic stage, a work unearthed from a tomb of the Western Han Dynasty. With simple lines, the artist skillfully modeled the figures to portray performing acrobats complete with orchestra and audience. It is a faithful representation of an acrobatic performance of the time.

The Queen of Song Touring with Her Entourage - A painting in one of the Dunhuang Caves by a Tang Dynasty artist. In front of the great parade is an acrobat balancing a tall pole on his forehead supporting the notion that acrobatics was very popular at the time.

The Ming Emperor Xian Zong Indulging in Pleasures – This depicts scenes from the Lantern Festival celebrations at the Ming Palace. On the palace grounds are acrobats performing Magic Tricks, Jumping Trough a Hoop on a Table, Juggling a Wheel with the Feet, and Juggling a Ladder with the Feet, representing acrobatic arts at their height 500 years ago.

Chinese acrobatics originated among the people as witnessed by its unique national style and rich flavor of life.

Most of the props used in the stage are common utensils such as plates, bowls, jars vases, tables, chairs, benches, and ladders, which acrobats skilfully use to present feats of wonder in performances reflecting the wisdom, hard work, courage, fortitude and optimism of the Chinese people.

In old China, acrobatics was regarded as itinerant entertainment not to be staged in theatres. Acrobats lived a vagrant life, wandering from place to place to sell their art on the street. Many, unable to make a living from acrobatics, had to do other manual work to support them, which limited the development of the art.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the art gained a new vitality as it began to be staged in theatres, and the status of acrobats was raised to end their vagabond life. Under this vigorous development, many new acts, particularly in balancing and somersaulting, were introduced.

Meanwhile, traditional Chinese acrobatic acts, such as “Handstands on Stacked Chairs”, “Lion Dance”, “Plate Spinning”, “Jumping Through Hoops”, “Diabolo Play” and “Pagoda of Bowls”, have received an enthusiastic welcome from audiences both at home and abroad.

Lion Dance

While appreciating the performances as a whole it is likely to feel that each individual acrobat is a vision of youthful vigor and every act an excellent display of poetic pictures.

Guided by the principles of “letting a hundred flowers blossom and weeding through the old to bring forth the new”, artists have made painstaking efforts in recent years to improve the design of acts, raise their standard, increase variety, add musical accompaniment, design better costumes, experiment with lighting, perfect stage design and train a younger generation.

Acrobatics thus is in full blossom among the other flowers in the Chinese art garden.

Acrobatics has long been important in the cultural exchange between China and other nations. Acrobatics troupes have gone abroad delighting audiences in different countries. Acting as cultural emissaries, acrobats have promoted friendship and understanding between the Chinese and the people of other countries.

At the same time, they also have drawn valuable experience from their acrobatic counterparts in other countries to add more color to Chinese acrobatic art.

Handstands on Stacked Chairs

Chairs are simple pieces of furniture, but they can become stage props with which acrobats perform graceful and precipitous feats. Through much practice, the feats have become more varied and performed with great skill and precision.

This item is given in two parts: first, a single acrobat performs handstand stunts on stacked chairs, and when the group performs the acrobats do various stunts on one stack of chairs, two stacks of chairs of three chairs atilt.

The chairs are stacked precipitously one on top of another, and the acrobats perform in symmetrical fashion from bottom to top. The whole scene looks like a splendid peacock displaying its fine feathers.

Lion Dance

Performances imitating animals’ movements are called “Imitation Performances”, and the Lion Dance is the best known of these. It was vividly described in Dances of the Western Regions, a poem written by Bai Juyi, a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty.

In recent years, this item, like other acrobatic acts, has also assumed new characteristics. For example, the “lion” may tread on a ball rolling across a seesaw, walk-on stakes, or stand on a pile of stools. The Lion Dance displays the brave, lively and playful character of the animal and is a segment worth watching over and over again.

Plate Spinning

The stage curtain rises slowly to the tune of melodious sounds and outcome a group of lovely girls spinning plates on long sticks.

In recent years this performance has broken new ground. Apart from the basic spinning, acrobats have created a number of intricate patterns.

For instance, in doing the “backflip in mid-air”, an acrobat, holding sticks with spinning plates on top in both hands, makes a swift backflip from table to the ground.

For the “headstand on the head”, two acrobats act in concert, with one resting upside down on the head of another and then finally rolling with ease down the latter’s back to the ground. During the process, the two keep their plates spinning steadily on their sticks.

Still another one, the “about-bend to pick up flowers with the mouth” is even more wonderful. A standing acrobat supports a bench on his head while the girl acrobat on top bends backward slowly to pick up flowers in a vase with her mouth. The act has won high praise from the audience.

Jumping through Hoops on the Ground

In this performance acrobats jump through as many as four wooden hoops piled one on top of another. The basic feats involve: jumping through with both hands holding a leg, two acrobats jumping vis-à-vis through two hoops, and diving through.

In recent years, combining the somersault with the jump, acrobats have created the feats of jumping through with a forward somersault or a backflip in the air. For the latter, the acrobat is so familiar with his backward turn that he, standing with his back to the hoop, can jump through it with precision.

The timing must be perfect for this act.

Diabolo Play

Twirling the Diabolo is another game popularly enjoyed by youngsters around Spring Festival time. The clarion sound that comes out of the hollows of the twirling diabolos adds an air of festivity.

A girl acrobat holds in each hand a short stick connected with a string. With deft movements of the hands, the diabolo placed on the string begins twirling, giving off pleasant sounds as it begins to twirl faster and faster.

It moves up and down and left and right on the string. The intensity of the sound increases with speed but the dancing diabolo is perfectly docile in the hands of the girl. At times she makes it swing around her waist, then round her arms or legs.

When the performance is given in cooperation with other girls, each sends her own flying into the air, to be caught on its descent on the waiting string of another. Sometimes three or four diabolos are rolling merrily on one string, racing like happy children.

Pagoda of Bowls

A brick carving unearthed from a tomb of the Han Dynasty shows a handstand figure with a pagoda of bowls so it can be concluded that this performance existed more than 2,000 years ago. It is another traditional item in the world of Chinese acrobatics.

In recent years this performance has become more specialized. Previously performed by a single acrobat on a stool, it is now done in cooperation with two people.

One acrobat, standing on top of the other, performs various feats with a Pagoda of Bowls, such as with one foot standing on the other’s head, one-hand stand, and passing the bowls from head to foot or vice versa.

While the upper member is giving her performance, the lower one is also giving his by pushing up the acrobat with one hand or sitting on the ground and turning himself.

At the end of the show, the upper one makes a forward somersault in mid-air, throwing the bowls off, and stands steadily on the ground while at the same time the lower one catches the failing bowls in his hand.

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