Acrobatics is one of the art forms most popular among the Chinese people. It has a long and rich heritage in China for more than two thousand years. As early as the Warring States Period (475-222 BC), the rudiments of acrobatics existed. By the time of the Han Dynasty (221 BC – 220 AD), the acrobatic art further developed both in content and variety.
History of Acrobatics in China
In the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), Jiaodi Drama (a drama that incorporates an ancient wrestling skill), originally popular among ordinary people, was introduced to the imperial court. Jiaodi Drama developed into a variety show of various music-dance acrobatics, including juggling sword, handstands, walking on the robe, feats on horseback, climbing poles, fighting with animals, and so on in the Han Dynasty.
Historical records show that Han Emperor Wudi held a grand banquet and largess awarding ceremony in the spring of 108 BC. Large-scale acrobatic performances were staged in the event, including various variety show feats and performances of foreign acrobats. Exotic feats made the acrobatics in the Han Dynasty more developed and colorful.
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), acrobatics was prevalent in the imperial court and among ordinary people as well. Royal families not only appreciated acrobatics during banquets, but also had acrobatics performances in processions of high officials. An Outing of Lady of the Song, a mural in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottos, was one of the examples. In this period, some programs in the Jiaodi Variety Show were eliminated, but those programs left enjoyed surprising development and took on new characteristics.
In the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), acrobatics moved from the imperial court to ordinary people, and the performing form and program contents witnessed profound changes. The emergence of Cheng’s and Zhu’s idealist philosophy and the prevalence of feudal ethics made the acrobatic art that came from ordinary people and was close to real life receive repulsion. Except some variety show items used in military trainings and performances in ceremonies in imperial court, most acrobatic programs were used by acrobats in vagabondism as a way of living.
This change made some large-scale programs disappear, while various small-scale programs and programs performed by families or individuals came into being. Juggling skills saw unprecedented development, and some fine works that show feats of waist, leg or head emerged.
In the Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1912 AD) dynasties, acrobatics was still a way of living for some people. Programs performed by individuals, father and son, master and apprentice, saw much development, and there formed many small-scale serial acrobatic performances, retaining many traditional feats.
In recent years, Chinese acrobats won prizes in many international competitions, and China was internationally recognized as the No.1 Country of Acrobatics.
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 which feature headstands, handstands and somersaults.
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 man’s spirit of braving hardships and danger.
Third, Chinese acrobats can juggle both light and heavy objects with dexterity, particularly with their feet. Juggling objects with the feet is mostly done by females lying on a special square platform. The artists manipulate a variety of objects ranging from wine buckets, porcelain jars, tables, ladders, poles, planks, drums and gongs to silk umbrellas 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.
Fourth, Chinese acrobatics features the combination of great physical strength and quick and nimble somersaults. It requires unusual physical strength on the part of the performer supporting a pyramid, as the Tang Dynasty acrobat who, records indicate, balanced a long pole on his head while 18 people performed 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 1,000 pounds.
Fifth, 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.