The Acrobats of Wuqiao

 

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

This entry was posted in Performing Arts, Shijiazhuang. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to The Acrobats of Wuqiao

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  2. This site is so awesome man. There are so many cool things and so many information about China. Keep up the good work. I just love this site.

  3. This summer, I visited Beijing and Xian in China. I took overnight soft sleeper train from Beijing to Xian, which saved me one night hotel room. When I got on the train, I found that Chinese train is different from western style train. On the train in China, the soft-sleeper carriages are divided into separate compartments and each compartment has two lower and two upper berths. Since I only purchase one of upper berths, I shared the compartment with another three strangers, who were all Chinese. It was a little bit strange to stay in one compartment with strangers at the beginning. testking 70-297 But those three Chinese were very freindly and one young man could speak a little English. I spent a good time on the train.

  4. Chinese are the best in their field of kunfo and acrobats no one can match there supremacy.

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  5. payday loans says:

    I have seen at National Geography or discovery channel about this acrobat. I really amazed to see their skill and how they practice everyday

  6. tinnitis says:

    It is not that the chinese are that good, any countrey they have a non democratic regym will have good sports – they will just have enough fundings and cultural motivation.

  7. Ernie says:

    They had the best acrobats a thousand years before they had a non democratic regime, tinnitis.

  8. Hi,
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  9. acrobatic china is already known very well, with graceful movements and compact. I always took myself to see if my town there is a show

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  10. the chinese are always are good at this work

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  14. London Tour says:

    I could never put my body through what they can and do… well done to them for working hard and getting the results.

  15. Designer Bag says:

    China is full of art, design, culture. I love many acrobatic performance from them.

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  16. I could never put my body through what they can and do… well done to them for working hard and getting the results.

  17. That is marvelous work done by the kids.

  18. The renowned Wuqiao Acrobatic World is located in the southwest of Cangzhou City.

  19. I think that is a good artistic performance by the Chinese people and I appreciate their work. Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  20. sex toys says:

    Have there been recorded cases of deaths or injuries? Logic dictates that there would be.

  21. xtaaxtw says:

    For ordinary people, the Acrobats is really difficult. In order to perform one good acrobatic performances, the actors have to pay more efforts. China has an old saying: the stage for one minute, the audience ten years of practice. To the best performances we can see, they paid a lot of sweat, thanks them.
    http://world-culture-research.org/c.asp?d=15296

  22. 1z0-051 says:

    I think that is a good artistic performance by the Chinese people and I appreciate their work. Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  23. Chinese culture is very much rare because Marshal Arts and Acrobats are the hobbies their youngsters.

  24. Roberto John says:

    I could never put my body through what they can and do… well done to them for working hard and getting the results. 

  25. This kind of dancing is pretty intense and it is an excellent way to keep in shape, plus it is fun.

  26. No pains no gains. Admire their patience and hard work.

  27. Ernie says:

    Not as beautiful as a Rocket in Spanish, cohetes.

  28. Absolutely incredible and beautiful!

  29. This bog gives the light in which we can observe the reality. This is very nice one and gives indepth information. Thanks for this nice blog.

  30. Incredible athletes, those acrobats are.

  31. This looks pretty much like Circus Soleil.

  32. Lasik says:

    It is not that the chinese are that good, any countrey they have a non democratic regym will have good sports – they will just have enough fundings and cultural motivation.

  33. hurda says:

    Hello Guru, what entice you to post an article. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.

  34. neck tattoos says:

    The Chinese performers are always well poised and precise with whatever they do.

  35. It looks a little like a stomp act. They look to be really enjoying themselves.

  36. I used to have a pet acrobats wuqiao – twas a viciuos little bugger…

  37. how to make everybody feel well

  38. Chinese have always seemed to have amaze the crowd with their goofy at the same time intellectually devised acts. So there is no surprise to see this set of acrobats. Because it has been proven Chinese are good at absolutely everything. ;)

  39. a really great writeup by you hope to come back more very soon.

  40. Battery Isolator says:

    This bog gives the light in which we can observe the reality. I appreciate the picture well’. Good angle of capture.

  41. Ernie says:

    I’m sorry, did you just call my article a toilet? I hope a battery isolates you!

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