by Ernie Diaz
Only boxers and ballet dancers can really understand what they go through. In a large, empty, dawn-lit room of the Wuqiao Acrobatic School, a cluster of children, six to sixteen years old, push their bodies to do the impossible. Ligaments stretch as faces grimace. Plenty of sweat and not a few tears stain clothes and floor. They have counterparts all over China, but the difference is that in Wuqiao the acrobat is a cause for pride.
Wuqiao County, composed largely of the flat farmlands of southeastern Hebei Province, has little to offer of interest save to an agronomist. Yet since the Western Han Dynasty, it has been turning out the best acrobats in China. No government project, the many schools of Wuqiao acrobatics developed and became legendary by village. The East School of Beimu Village was most famous in the mid-Ming Dynasty, winning renown for skill in horse-riding and sword play. The West School of Cangshang and Fandun villages later rose to prominence, excelling in martial arts. A splinter of the West School, the Qi School, was the first to win the honor of Qing court appearances with displays of qigong and magic. Obviously, acrobatics used to enjoy a much larger purview, won by right of the strength, balance, and control that its practice endows.
Not that difficulty level has shrunk with repertoire. Pole climbing, lion dancing, chair stacking, hoop diving, and a panoply of other balance and tumbling feats demand early devotion and grueling years of monotonous practice, just for a performer to be called mediocre. Concerning Wuqiao’s undisputed acrobatic title, it’s a chicken-egg argument. “No toddler or crone in Wuqiao but knows a tumbling trick,” goes an old folk saying. In the fields or at market, the people of Wuqiao juggle implements, balance vinegar jars, and walk on their hands. On rainy days, youngsters keep umbrellas perched on their noses. At wedding feasts, bride and groom are expected to distribute candy and cigarettes with sleight of hand. It’s as close to the universal dexterity of Kung Fu Movie Land as one can come in this clumsy world.
As may be expected with a tradition so ancient, Chinese acrobatics has its birth in legend. The so-called Yellow Emperor, all-father of Chinese civilization, faced a deadly enemy of his humanizing efforts. Chi You, a monstrous horned man with bristles covering his body, was unstoppable in his predations, and could even bring on floods and storms with primordial magic. Huang had to employ tigers, bears, and drums stretched with dragon skin to finally defeat him. The victory was theretofore celebrated with annual feasts, at which the most athletic would vie in the “Chi You Battle”, later evolving into a game called jiao di. The feats of power and balance displayed in jiao di eventually evolved into za ji, today’s acrobatics.
Neither its heroic beginnings nor its amazing performances have ever commanded true respect in China. Traditionally, an acrobat occupied a place on the Confucian org chart only marginally higher than a prostitute’s. Even lowly singers and actors got a box above them. Maybe it was their itinerant nature that turned off a people bound to the land, or that acrobats, martial artists, opera singers, and other roustabouts contributed nothing to China’s harmony. At best, acrobats were a market place distraction to throw a copper at. At worst, they were scoundrels easily given to thievery.
The fortunes of singers and actors have improved drastically in intervening years, but the Chinese acrobat remains in limbo. Hard to find on the orderly streets of Beijing or Shanghai, the busking acrobat troupe is still a common sight in less international cities. Given their generally grimy, hungry state, not to mention lack of good training, these street acrobats can nonetheless boggle an onlooker with standing pyramids and feats of contortion. The state of acrobats school-trained and cared for is better, but not necessarily their rank. Unless there’s a CCTV gala that needs an act between patriotic crooners, acrobats are generally kept in the corner of Chinese society.
But acrobatics, like so much else in Han culture, saw a change in fortunes with the arrival of the foreigner. The enthusiasm and admiration of the barbarian for Chinese acrobatics was early noted. Troupes were sent abroad in Chinese diplomatic delegations light on clout and in need of that with which to impress. These days, it’s a short-sighted tour company indeed that doesn’t offer an acrobatics show in its China itinerary. Ironic that it took outsiders to truly appreciate the sublime cruelty of letting a girl train ten thousand hours that she may catch stacks of teacups on her head whilst riding a two-meter unicycle.
The students of Wuqiao Acrobatics School are well aware of the relatively warm receptions awaiting them overseas. The prospect of ten thousand RMB a month, wages for top acrobats on international tours, is a prime factor driving the school’s eight thousand RMB yearly fees, sky-high for the types of families compelled to put their hopes in a six-year old.
Yet most likely camaraderie, rather than dreams of riches, keeps acrobats dedicated through their decade-long apprenticeships. No eight year old could endure the dawn stretching, the repetitive seven to ten hours a day, the discipline of the stick (Which is never used anymore, though journalists are forbidden from interviewing students at the Wuqiao school.), on visions of supporting her family and having an iPod. To see them finally complete a routine flawlessly, tearfully hugging each other, is to understand the soul of Chinese acrobats. You’ll never see it onstage, by then they’re too professional, but that emotional esprit de corps is their true reward.
Photo by Natalie Behring